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 27

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Page 27

Secondary Scholarship | 2002
Transcription find upon the maps fell, after a siege of years the proud and polished city
before the barbarian and piratical foe? . . . Ruins speak for themselves, and, to
this extent, are their own historians. They equally denote the existence and the
overthrow; the was and the is not and the dry sapless history, tells us nothing,
which can tell us nothing more!"7
The modern reader, of course, has some difficulty in comprehending the
difference between what Simms argues for and simple deceitfulness. For to tell
the truth, in modern terms, is to tell the facts accurately. Since late medieval
times, and especially since early modernity, Westerners have increasingly fallen
under the spell of nominalism. The essence of nominalism (or as one philosopher
has called it, "concreteism"8) is that only concrete and individual things are real;
all concepts, categories, and universals are merely the names of things.
Simms's point, however, assumes that the particulars of history in one way or
another are the reiteration of truths that transcend the particular and the concrete.
This assumption, of course, belongs to the older realist insight into the practical
immutability of essences the idea, for instance, that the category "human being"
transcends and even exists before any concrete example of a human being.
Simms grasps the fact that history cannot be told without recourse to this anti-
nominalistic intuition: that human history is about the interplay of affections, the
contest of values, the triumph or the failure of virtue, the aspirations toward
nobility or the fearful sinking back into nature shaped by appetite and ennui.
Such simply cannot be grasped by those restricted to the concrete and particular.
What then argues for the validity of history written with this fictive
element? Only the artist can be the true historian, he says. "To such an intellect,
it must be permitted to argue his case as an advocate, to choose his favourite
personages from the chronicle, and to make perfect his ideals, by a nice
adaptation to their known characteristics, of such as are essential to the
completion of the model. In proportion as his work conforms to known
proprieties and generally recognized probabilities, and in proportion as it makes
favourably for the cause of humanity and virtue, upon the understandings of those
to whom his labours are addressed, are his performances well or badly done,
and in just such degree will he be found to live in the regards of future ages." It
is the repeatable, and therefore unchanging, works within history that are of
ultimate significance both to the historian and to those in any age who receive that
historical tradition, not the freak events or the singular facts, but that which marks
out the regular paths of human events. Therefore, says this critic who now pits
his insights against the strongest trends of nineteenth century historiography, and
who would challenge nominalism at high tide, the historian of real worth is he
who uses "his taste, his skill, his eloquence, his powers of compression or

7 Simms, Views and Reviews, 24.
8 That is Alvin Plantinga in Does God Have a Nature?