Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 10: No 2) >> Simms's Reading of History as Prophylactic Against American Religious Fundamentalism: The Issue of Fictive Technique in History >> Page 22

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Secondary Scholarship | 2002
Transcription Simms's Reading of History as Prophylactic Against American
Religious Fundamentalism:
The Issue of Fictive Technique in History

A. J. Conyers


William Gilmore Simms did not have in mind religious fundamentalism
when he delivered his oration on Americanism in Literature to the combined
literary societies at the University of Georgia in 1844. Nevertheless, his
understanding of truth conveyed through historical memory has much in common
with the understanding of post-exilic Judaism and early Christianity, and makes a
case against the modern (nominalistic) understanding of history represented by
both nineteenth century philosophers of history and twentieth century
fundamentalists. The possibilities of history, for both art and philosophy, rest
upon the ceaseless repetition from a nation's story that "awakens our attention,
compels our thought, warms our affections, inspirits our hopes, elevates our aims,
and builds up in our minds a fabric of character .... "1 They do not stand or fall
with the individual "facts." This conviction of Simms's undergirds his use of
history in fiction and his sense of the truth of history. It is realistic rather than
nominalistic in nature, and provides an insight into why the American mind
resisted (especially in the South) the eruptions of fundamentalism that later
became so prominent in American religious life.
This paper attempts to continue an investigation of the religious element in
Simms's thought and especially as this is reflected in his social/literary criticism.
The principle text that helps us to understand Simms's contribution is from Views
and Reviews in American Literature (New York, 1845). Of this, I am focusing on
Article II: "The epochs and events of American history, as suited to the Purpose
of Art in Fiction". In this article he presents a very concise and tightly argued
idea of "history for the purposes of art." Here it will be seen that (1) Simms
understands history as revelatory of truth in a way not confined to the particulars
of a story, but in its reiteration throughout life and from generation to generation;
(2) that historical fiction does not compromise historical truth by investing it with
imaginary characters, circumstances, plot and dialogue, but helps to discover the
truth that often lies at a deeper level than the surface particulars of the original

1 William Gilmore Simms, Views and Reviews in American Literature, History, and Fiction. (New
York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845), 26-27.
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