Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Monody, on the Death of Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Poetry | 1825

In 1825, a nineteen-year-old Simms published his first major work, Monody, on the Death of Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and thus took his initial step toward establishing himself as one of the leading literary voices in Charleston.  His work at this time, and especially in this long poem, pointed to intellectual concerns that would follow him throughout his literary career.  Monody was published during one of Simms’s first periods of sustained literary labor, his acting as editor of the Album: A Weekly Miscellany, a magazine first published on 2 July 1825, and then every Saturday for the rest of that year.[1]  Biographer John Caldwell Guilds notes that this was a “busy tenure” for Simms.[2]  His editorship of the Album not only proved a useful apprenticeship for the burgeoning man of letters, but also importantly served to establish Simms’s first relationship with a publisher, Gray & Ellis, who would also publish Monody, as well as proving a fitting introduction for Simms to the importance of a good relationship with the press.

Guilds notes that “[e]vidence of Simms’s growing awareness of what it took to be a success in political-minded literary Charleston came” soon after he began work on the Album.[3] On 16 August 1825, General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, member of a preeminent Charleston family, decorated Revolutionary War officer, former United States Minister to France during the Washington Administration, and two-time Federalist Party candidate for President, died in Charleston.  Simms’s response to this was Monody, a long mourning poem that relies heavily on Classical allusions to praise Pinckney’s virtues as a military leader, statesman, and gentleman.  Guilds notes that while the writer was surely “sincere in his appreciation of Pinckney,” it is also hardly doubtful that “the hard-working editor saw the portrayal of national heroes as a profitable theme for future literary efforts.”[4]  This thinking is corroborated by the fact that Simms’s poem was among what James B. Meriwether calls the “veritable avalanche of other tributes to Pinckney” to appear in the weeks and months following the general’s death.[5]  Meriwether goes on to argue that while it is “somewhat meager in accomplishment, the poem is ambitious in what it attempts and significant about what it shows about the nature of the apprenticeship which Simms was subjecting himself to.”[6]  Thus, this poem can be seen as an intriguing starting point for understanding the author’s literary career and overall project.  As Meriwether notes, Monody “announces Simms’s strong interest in the Revolution and the plight of oppressed people in their struggle for freedom that was to last throughout his lifetime.  Further, it shows his concern with the exemplary hero—in this case, the model citizen and lawyer, soldier and statesman, noted for his service to his people and place.”[7] 

Monody was published in September 1825 by “A South-Carolinian.”  The local press, however, seemingly knew it was Simms who had penned the work, with the Charleston Courier remarking that Monody was “from a hand not unknown to our readers.”[8]  While the circumstantial evidence provided by the mention in the Courier and the publication of Monody by Gray & Ellis suggests Simms as the likely writer, actually proving his authorship is more problematic.  The Courier does not elucidate who this “hand not unknown” actually was, nor does Simms ever mention the poem in the extant correspondence published in the Letters.  Further, no manuscript is known to exist.  However, several loose cut-outs of pages of Monody can be found in Simms’s personal papers, which are now part of the Charles Carroll Simms Collection in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina; collecting his own work in this manner was common for Simms, which helps further prove his authorship of Monody.

The editors of the Letters suggest that Monody was well-received by at least some of the Charleston press, with the 25 September 1825 issue of the Charleston Courier devoting “over half a column to a highly favorable review” of the work.[9]  Despite this, the work was seemingly unnoticed.  In the late 19th century, William P. Trent noted that collectors of “rare Charlestoniana have never even heard of it,” and that despite the Courier’s recommendation, “there is every reason to believe that this patriotic tribute made no impression whatever upon the cultivated circles its author particularly desired to reach.”[10]  Meriwether quotes at length from the Courier’s review, including its instructive criticism.[11]  “The reviewer,” Meriwether notes, “was correct that Simms was still in need of rigorous discipline and thus needed to apprentice himself to the best masters if he were to avoid such faults as dimness of overall conception and the imaginative flights that might lead to loss of precision,” issues that mar what is nevertheless a laudatory effort by the young poet.[12]  The work thus received a mixed reception in Charleston, and was largely unnoticed outside of Simms’s hometown; this should not be surprising for a work published anonymously by a then-obscure writer on a topic about which there was no shortage of voices.  Monody was never published beyond its first edition.

Understandably, Monody is extremely rare.  While pages from the original exist, as stated, in Simms’s collected papers, the only known complete original copy is held by the New York Historical Society.  In the summer of 1975, the Southern Studies Program at the University of South Carolina made the first attempts at expanding access to Monody by having four photocopies made of this original.  These copies consist of the title page, dedication page, and the text of the poem, all held together in small individual manila folders.  In 2009, The Simms Review furthered these efforts at expanding access by publishing a transcription of the poem.  The digital copy of Monody presented by the Simms Initiatives is made from one of the 1975 photo reproductions, and represents the first time the original, complete text has been made widely available.  Monody’s title page reads: MONODY, | ON | THE DEATH OF | Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. | [double rule] | BY | A SOUTH-CAROLINIAN. | [double rule] | [Inscription, in brackets:  William Gilmore Simms] | CHARLESTON: | PRINTED BY GRAY & ELLIS. | [rule] | 1825. 

 

W. Matthew J. Simmons



[1] Letters 1:lxv. 

[2] John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991), 23.

[3] Guilds, Simms, 23.

[4] Ibid.

[5] James B. Meriwether, “The Significance of Simms’s First Long Poem,” The Simms Review 17.1-2 (2009), 14.  This essay, following a transcription of Monody, should be considered the most complete consideration of the work to date.

[6] Meriwether, “The Significance,” 15.

[7] Meriwether, “The Significance,” 19.

[8] Letters 1:lxvi.  The Charleston Courier had earlier noted Simms’s work on the Album, remarking that the appearance of this journal shows that Simms and the other editors “are young Charlestonians not excited by any sordid pecuniary view, but urged by the laudable and honorable motive of establishing in their native city such a periodical journal more adapted to their own age, as is issued in every other metropolis of the Union…In every way The Album will be an advantage to the rising generation and therefore it should meet with the respect of a liberal public” (Letters 1:lxv).  The implications of such praise were obviously not lost on the young editor, who was thus initiated into the idea of literature’s civic, as well as artistic, goals—a concern that would be seen throughout his work, beginning in earnest with Monody.

[9] Ibid.

[10] William P. Trent, William Gilmore Simms, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892), 45.  It should be noted that Trent suggests the reason for Monody being ignored was largely the result of “the elegant gentlemen forming those circles [that Simms hoped to reach] were still living, in imagination at least, in the time of Horace…they had something better to do, in their own opinion, than to encourage the efforts of native American genius, especially of a Charleston nobody.” (45-46) Recent scholars, like Michael O’Brien, have shown the vibrancy of antebellum southern intellectual and literary life, thus complicating Trent’s reasoning.

[11] This criticism suggests that the Courier was perhaps just as concerned with providing feedback to encourage the young author in his future endeavors as it was with simply praising the work under consideration. 

[12] Meriwether, “The Significance,” 14.

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