Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 1: No 2) >> John Esten Cooke's Sketch of Simms >> Page 33

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Page 33

Reviews/Essays | 1858 - 1859
Transcription 33


David Aiken

In 1859 Orville Victor, editor of the Cosmopolitan Art Journal, asked
Simms to mail him a photograph and a biography. Simms accepted the invitation
and provided a choice of photographs as well as detailed instructions for Victor's
engraver. "Your engraver," he writes, "will need to open the eyes a little. Being
once a sufferer from coup de soleil, the least condensation of light upon my eyes,
even for a moment, causes the delicate muscles of that region to wince & contract,
so that the eye nearly closes, & there is a swelling & corrugation all around it, &
the very nose is slightly lifted. To correct this, get the engraved portrait publishe
by Redfield and let the engraver work out from the two" (Letters, IV, p. 178).
The care Simms took with his picture is mirrored in his selection of John
Esten Cooke as the man to write his biography. Simms had known Cooke since
1854, though perhaps not very well. As late as January 1859, he addresses Cooke
as "My dear Mr. Cooke" and includes the line "my dear young friend, you are a
bachelor, I believe" (Letters, IV, p. 114). Even Simms's July 1859 letter asking
Cooke to provide a biography reads like a friendship in the early stages. After
explaining his need of someone to write a memoir for him, Simms says, "It is
tasking your friendship very soon to say, as I do, that I know of no one who could
please me better by such a performance, but it must be a labour of love, for Victor
can't afford pay" (Letters, IV, p. 166).
What made Cooke a good choice was not his knowledge of Simms the
man but rather his thorough acquaintance with Simms the author. Already
familiar with Simms's work, Cooke had published a glowing review of Simnrs's
Revolutionary Romances in Southern Literary Messenger (May 1859, pp. 355-
370). An abridged version was published the same month in the Charleston
Mercury (25 May 1859).
Cooke's praise of Simms carried considerable credibility during this period.
Cooke had already achieved critical and popular success with The Virginia
Comedians. His five other novels had also sold well. His stories, poems, and
essays had been published in Harper's and Putnam's„and Rufus Griswold had
included him in Poets and Poetry of America.
That Cooke knew little of Simms personally is evident when Simms directs
him to other sources: "If you feel in the vein, you can find adequate material of
fact in the paper in Duyckinck's Cyclopaedia; & in the pages of the Messenger,
in the article of Mr. Miles....Your own analysis will supply the commentary; and
you may use much of what you have said elsewhere, as such a sketch, for such
a journal, does not limit you to the rigid reserves of a Cyclopaedia of biography"
(Letters, IV; pp. 166-167). Further evidence is found in Simms's September 1859
letter to Victor: "I hasten to send you the sketch of myself which I have just
received from Mr. Cooke. I might add a good many details, but his summary
seems to cover them" (Letters, IV, p. 178). He then elaborates details. He notes,
for instance, that he is a cotton planter on a plantation named Woodlands, that he