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 26

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Secondary Scholarship | 2002
Transcription "prior to the French Revolution, historiography was conventionally regarded as a
literary art" in that it was seen as a "branch of rhetoric and its `fictive' nature
[was] generally recognized." Even as late as Bayle, Voltaire, and De Mably,
Hayden says, "the inevitability of a recourse to fictive techniques in the
representation of real events in the historical discourse" was acknowledged.
However, "In the early nineteenth century . . . it became conventional, at least
among historians, to identify truth with fact and to regard fiction as the opposite
of truth, hence as a hindrance to the understanding of reality rather than as a
way of apprehending it." The trend in the nineteenth century one that had long
term consequences regarding our understanding of history, whether that be of the
secular history of a people or the sacred history of faith "was to expunge every
hint of the fictive, or merely imaginative" and to "eschew the techniques of the
poet and orator, and to forego what were regarded as the intuitive procedures of
the maker of fictions" in the "apprehension of reality."4
Early in the nineteenth century, much of the impetus for this trend came
from the philosophers and historians of the Berlin University faculty, whom
Simms alludes to in this essay while not confining the modern prejudice to
German scholars alone.5 Here we can see he is intent upon American arts
following a different direction from the European with its extreme expression of
an Enlightenment outlook. In response, Simms is unsparing. The truth that
"seems equally to have escaped the sarcastic minister and the learned German,
and which the taste that prefers the ruin to its restoration will be the very last to
appreciate" is this: "the chief value of history consists in its proper employment
for the purposes of art!" It consists, he says, "in its proper employment, as so
much raw material, in the erection of noble fabrics and lovely forms, to which the
fire of genius imparts soul, and which the smile of taste informs with beauty;
and which, thus endowed and constituted, are so many temples of mind so many
shrines of purity, where the big, blind, struggling heart of the multitude may
rush, in its vacancy, and be made to feel; in its blindness, and be made to see; in
its fear and find countenance; in its weakness and be rendered strong; in the
humility of its conscious baseness, and be lifted into gradual excellence and hope!
These are the offices of art for which she employs history ...."6
After all, the uses of history without art are meaningless. "Of what use,"
he says, "to know the simple fragmentary fact, that Troy —a city we no longer

4 Hayden White, "The Fictions of Factual Representation," in The Literature of Fact: Selected
Papers from the English Institute, ed. By Angus Fletcher (New York: Columbia University Press,
1976), 23-25.
5 In a note he mentions M. Niebuhr, one of the principle figures of note who, along with Ranke,
seems to have given some momentum to this restriction upon historical writing. See View and
Reviews, 23n. where he states that "We prefer one Livy to a cloud of such witnesses as M.
6 Simms, Views and Reviews, 23-24.