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 28

image of pageExplore Inside

Page 28

Secondary Scholarship | 2002
Transcription dilation, of grouping and relief' in an effort to recall what is truly central to the
story. Further, "It is really of very little importance to mankind whether he is
absolutely correct in all his conjectures or assertions, whether his theory be true
or false, or he rightly determines upon the actor or the scene."9
What does matter is that the historian have in view "the effect, upon
character, of lessons drawn from the experience and the deeds of some superior
branch or persons of the great human family." Or: what singular achievements
and what grotesque failure frame the possibilities for humanity in its striving to
progress and its self-warning against hubris, cruelty, pettiness, sloth, falsehood, or
the host of sins that afflict us. These are achieved by the poet while the modern
academic historian is still puzzling over some insignificant details that make
neither a practical nor a genuinely speculative difference in the way we receive
history. "Livy in past, and Gibbon in modern times, were artists of singular
ability in the adjustment of details and groups, and in the declination of action.
Of the extent of their powers of conjecture, their capacity for supplying
appropriately the unsuggested probability, of filling the blanks in history with
those details without which the known were valueless it needs but to say that
the facts in ancient history, compared with what is conjectured of the facts in
their connection, were really very few, if not very unimportant. Original, or
transmitted authorities, must always have been very vague and uncertain prior to
the discovery of printing. Tradition then was the chronicler, and the poet was
the historian."10 History without art is of little value. It is, as Simms termed it,
"skeleton history" without the sinews, the breath, the dreams and aspirations of
living people and of true circumstances.

Examples from "The Cherokee Embassage""The Cherokee Embassage" is an early historical story, written by Simms
some seven or eight years before the delivery of his views on "history and fiction"
to the combined literary societies at the University of Georgia. It serves as an
example of the effort to weave into one piece of art the factual and the imaginary
in view of the moral lessons of history. Professor Thomas L. Johnson, of the
University of South Carolina, tells me that he uses this story regularly in his
"South Carolina Writers" course for the very telling reason that it is accessible,
"not only intellectually but emotionally." In a fascinating summary of the moral
impact of the story, he writes, "It is a vital, moving, passionate treatment of the
betrayal of the American dream and the irony of the destruction of the earliest

9 Simms, Views and Reviews. 26.
10 Simms, Views and Reviews, 30.