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 23

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Secondary Scholarship | 2002
Transcription events. The implications of this view of history can be felt in (1) the nineteenth
and twentieth century growth of religious fundamentalism, in which the statement
of truth is understood as literal and univocal and (2) the fact that this
fundamentalism was largely missing from Simms's region of the country until
late in the twentieth century. Simms's treatment of the truth of history is
therefore (1) not univocal (as a fundamentalist treatment would be, insisting on
the urgent importance of the literal factuality of every item in the historical
report); (2) nor is it equivocal (a position corresponding to religious liberalism in
which historical facts may have no direct bearing on the truth of things except as
they express more general truths); (3) it is however analogical, corresponding to
the understanding of history that has guided most of Christian thought when it has
avoided fundamentalism and liberalism two species of modern thought.
Finally, we will see how Simms employs this analogical understanding of
history in his early work "The Cherokee Embassage."

The Shape of American Fundamentalism

The contemporary relevance of Simms's address on the artistic uses of
history, it seems to me, bears upon the religious phenomenon of fundamentalism.
We should therefore begin with a definition. The term is commonly used, almost
always in a pejorative sense, and yet I think seldom carefully defined. Often it is
used to indicate a general notion of religious enthusiasm, or a religious view of
the world that might more properly be called "Puritanism." In the case of Shiite
Islam in Iran and among its neighbors, and in the case of the Taliban in
Afghanistan, the sense of a religious world-view is that of the Puritan, not the
fundamentalist, though they are often identified as "fundamentalist Islamic" sects
or movements. The Puritan wishes to impose a vision of reality upon the world
until the world's alleged imperfections are erased. He speaks casually of "solving
problems" in society, as if such a thing had ever occurred as if history had ever
yielded anything but slow and uncertain improvements, within enclaves of
humane communities, and sometimes within civilizations that stretch over much
of a continent. Even at that, improvements were at best ambivalent and desultory:
there came to these places wonderful glimpses at times of freedom, goodness,
generosity, industry, charity and the like. But never were problems erased as the
Puritans of Old England and New England had anticipated. And the ethic of the
Puritan brought at least as much disorder as it did improvement.
Fundamentalism is also a disorder, but of a different kind from Puritanism.
One might say overstating the case only slightly that fundamentalism is a
disorder of the intellect, while Puritanism is a disorder of the heart. One,
Puritanism, fails to understand the subtlety of the affections, and the elusiveness
of the good and the just, both in society and in private lives. Its perfect image is