Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 8: No 2) >> The Mother Land: The Southern Nationalism of William Gilmore Simms >> Page 17

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Page 17

Secondary Scholarship | 2000
Transcription The Northern agitation over the slavery issue jolted Simms into a recognition
that the mutual respect which forged the Union was endangered even on basic
economic and social issues. All of these factors coalesced to cause Simms to begin
questioning the value of the Union to the South.
The sense that the South was excluded from a full recognition of partnership
in the developing national ethos was a key to Simms's movement to political
nationalism. Simms could portray himself as and be a full blown American
Nationalist without in any way abandoning cultural nationalism for the South, due
to the federal character of the republic. He could not abide exclusion, or a sense of
arrogant superiority on the part of the North, and this he increasingly saw.
At the base of Simms's view of these issues was a fundamental identity with
the South. Though Simms concluded long before 1860 that it was to the South's
advantage to form an independent political "confederacy," a fundamental
identification with the South was at the heart of his view of the entire issue. As has
been said of the American Revolution, before the first shot was fired, a Southern
nation had been formed in the hearts and minds of the Southern people — before the
political nation had come a Southern cultural and spiritual nation. Simms is a
foremost illustration of this phenomenom. From his first literary endeavors until his
last he always sought to advance the artistic and cultural life of the Southern people.
Whether he spoke in terms of America or of the South, it was the Southern version
of America which he promoted. His Southern Nationalism was a refined American
Nationalism, no less original, no less genuine and authentic, no less admirable, than
the Northern Nationalism which has come to be accepted as the only true American
Just as has been said of cultural nationalism, so it can be said of political
nationalism: "this identity can only be grasped as a living whole."58 The dominant
current historical interpretation is the ossified dogma that the South, and Simms,
were motivated principally with a concern for slavery. Since modern historians
insist that "each generation writes its own history" to serve the goals and values of
the present generation, that interpretation fits the modern dismissal of the Old South
as anachronistic and of little value to us today, except as the example of "the dark
side of America," a convenient way to keep in subjection the America defeated in
war. A few scholars, such as Michael O'Brien, have shown that the Old South had a
vibrant intellectual life interested in the vital issues of Western civilization of the
day; that to focus exclusively on slavery is to warp badly what the Old South
thought and did.59 A noted historian of the Old South, Eugene Genovese, though

58 See Hutchinson, The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism, p. 14, for this term.
59 See especially Michael O'Brien, Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History
(Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), the Introduction, and Chapter 1, "On the
Mind of the Old South and Its Accessibility," and Chapter 2, "The Lineaments of Antebellum
Southern Romanticism."