Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution

Biography | Geo. F. Cooledge & Brother | 1849

                Simms was interested in the American Revolution throughout his career, writing significant works about the conflict in both fiction and nonfiction.  By 1840, he had already produced the first edition of his History of South Carolina as well as two of his Revolutionary Romances, all of which are works largely concerned with the effect of the Revolution on his native state.  Around this same time, Simms had decided to complement this work by writing biographies.  In April 1840, he wrote to James Lawson that he was “meditating and taking notes for several Biographies—say Marion, Sumter, Pickens, Moultrie &c.—worthies of Carolina Revolutionary History.”[1]  Eventually, Simms produced two biographies of Revolutionary War figures—The Life of Francis Marion and The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution

                Simms made relatively few comments about Nathanael Greene in his letters.  In September 1840, he wrote that he was “taking notes for my life of Greene” but then did not mention this project again until October 1843, when he wrote George Frederick Holmes that his biography of Francis Marion “may be followed up by Lives of Greene & Sumter.”[2]  Simms took up the project in earnest by at least 1848, as evidenced by a July 1848 letter to Lawson in which he stated, “I am busy on the Greene which I will finish this month.”[3]  A month later, he announced he was “getting on slowly” with the project, though by a 27 August letter to Lawson, he announced that he had “just got through the Greene (mum!).”[4]  While the book lacks a definitive publication date, Nathanael Greene was copyrighted in 1849 by its publisher, George F. Cooledge & Brother.  Simms makes no mention of this work in the Letters after this, and Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr.’s William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide lists only one review of Nathanael Greene — an 1858 notice from Russell’s magazine that gives a passing mention of the book as part of a biographical sketch of Greene.[5]  While Butterworth and Kibler’s Reference Guide may not be an exhaustive survey of reviews, it is significant that the only one they mention is from nine years after Nathanael Greene’s ostensible publication; when combined with the few words Simms himself had to say about the work, it seems likely that Nathanael Greene was a lightly regarded and obscure work.

                Nathanael Greene’s obscurity is perhaps appropriate, as the exact extent of Simms’s own involvement with its creation is unclear.  He signs the book as the “editor,” and this creates much of the confusion surrounding the work Simms did in producing Nathanael Greene.  In his editorial advertisement, he notes that he had “consulted nearly all the volumes which promised to have any bearing upon the subject,” including “the copious biographical sketches of Johnson, and the several volumes of Lee, Ramsay, Moultrie, Marshall, Tarleton, Graydon, and others, not forgetting the very graceful memoir of Greene, from the pen of his grandson.”[6]  There have long been various views about what Simms’s editorship actually entailed.  William P. Trent, Simms’s earliest biographer, noted in 1892 that the book “purports to be edited by Simms.  There is, however, no reason to believe that he did not write it.  He speaks, it is true, of [revising earlier biographical treatments of Greene,] but Simms’s ear-marks are visible through the whole of it”[7]  Yet, John C. Guilds’s 1992 biographical treatment of Simms does not discuss Nathanael Greene, nor even list it in the bibliography of the author’s works.[8]  In “Simms’s Editing of The Life of Nathanael Greene,” (1978) Frederick Wagner makes a compelling case that Simms had merely “abridged and paraphrased” William P. Johnson’s 1822 Sketches of the Life and Correspondence of Nathanael Greene.  While Simms’s editorial advertisement mentions Johnson’s work, and thus provides “himself some protection against a charge of plagiarism,” Wagner suggests that Simms “seems to have intended to obscure his actual procedure than to illuminate it.”[9]  Historian Sean Busick complicates this picture, noting that “Simms did think highly of Johnson’s biography” and that “Johnson gave [Simms] an autographed copy of the book.”[10]  While Busick agrees with Wagner that a “textual analysis of Simms’s book and Johnson’s biography does indeed reveal Simms’s close reliance on Johnson,” he asserts that “it is also clear that Simms carefully weighed Johnson’s account against others’ and wrote the biography using his own words.”  Busick concludes that while “Johnson provided the major source,” it was far from the only work Simms drew on, and his “rewriting and revising was more substantial than the term ‘editing’ sometimes implies.”[11]

                The 1849 copyrighted edition of The Life of Nathanael Greene also includes “Southern Army:  A Narrative of the Campaign of 1780,” written by Colonel Otho Holland Williams, as an appendix.  The South Caroliniana Library’s copy of the book features brown front and back boards with an ornate frame stamp.  Its spine is brown with gilt stamp reading:  [perched eagle] | LIFE OF | GENERAL | NATH. GREENE | [rule] | SIMMS. | [ornate grouping of sword, arrows, laurel, chain, and flags] | [man dressed in revolutionary uniform standing beside a canon] | [ornate scroll] | ILLUSTRATED | LIBRARY.  The title page reads: THE LIFE | OF | NATHANAEL GREENE, | MAJOR-GENERAL IN THE ARMY OF THE REVOLUTION. | EDITED BY | W. GILMORE SIMMS, ESQ., | AUTHOR OF "LIFE OF MARION," "CAPT. JOHN SMITH," ETC. | NEW YORK: | GEORGE F. COOLEDGE & BROTHER, | PUBLISHERS AND BOOKSELLERS, | 323 PEARL STREET.


W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] Letters, 1:171

[2] Ibid., 1:188-89, 378-79

[3] Ibid., 2:414

[4] Ibid., 2:430, 438.  Simms’s request that Lawson keep “mum!” about the biography’s completion is unexplained.

[5] Keen Butterworth and James E. Kibler, Jr., William Gilmore Simms:  A Reference Guide (Boston:  G.K. Hall & Co., 1980), 114.

[6] William Gilmore Simms, “Advertisement,” in The Life of Nathanael Greene, Major-General in the Army of the Revolution, (New York: Geo. F. Cooledge & Brother, [1849?]).

[7] William Peterfield Trent, William Gilmore Simms (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892), 139

[8] Appendix V of Guild’s Simms: A Literary Life announces itself as “The Writings of William Gilmore Simms Appearing in Book Form,” with an explanatory note that states that the list “includes all first publications (regardless of brevity) issued separately in ‘book form’ and all book-length publications, whether or not in ‘book form,’ issued during Simms’s lifetime.”  The reasons for Guilds’s exclusion of Nathanael Greene are unclear.  John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992), 359.

[9] Frederick Wagner, “Simms’s Editing of The Life of Nathanael Greene,” Southern Literary Journal 11, no. 1 (1978): 40, 43.

[10] Sean R. Busick, A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2005), 40.

[11] Ibid., 41.