Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 10: No 1) >> Donald Davidson, the Simms Legacy, and a Reminiscence >> [Page 27]

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[Page 27]

Scholarship | 2002
Transcription Southerner was the source of inspiration for a great modem author. Simms thus
continued to live through Davidson's own literary work.
In "Woodlands, 1956-1960," Davidson feels Simms's close presence at
Simms's plantation, a charmed place which M. E. Bradford called "a source of
moral and artistic rejuvenation" for Davidson–in effect, what Coole Park was for
William Butler Yeats.3 If we continue the analogy, then Mrs. Oliphant would serve
as Davidson's Lady Gregory, both of them the keepers of living traditions, Southern
and Irish respectively, and both catalysts to their writer-friends' art. In the 1950s,
Davidson was depressed by the New South boosterism of Nashville and became
increasingly alienated from both his colleagues at Vanderbilt and his ex-Agrarian
friends who had taken different paths. Mrs. Oliphant herself, like her grandfather
Simms, must have been an inspiration both personally, and creatively. That
Davidson dedicated the poem to her would suggest the same.
Winchell goes on to show that Davidson was also inspired by Simms the
activist. As Winchell puts it, Simms, being no "model of quietistic withdrawal," was
"actively involved in the social and political controversies of his day, and he wrote
about men who violently resisted the enemies of their own time and place."
Davidson, likewise, during the time of his visits to Woodlands and of his study of
Simms, had become more actively engaged in politics and current social issues.
Winchell concludes that if Davidson's poem "posits modernity as the generic
enemy of the way of life symbolized by Simms's plantation, it is probable Davidson
saw the intrusive federal government as an even more immediate analogue to
Tarleton and his men." Therefore, in this way also, Davidson looked to Simms for
inspiration, a Simms who defended State sovereignty, and who, like the earlier
American patriots who people his novels, fought "to maintain the corporate liberty
of their communities against a distant and tyrannical government." As Davidson
thus says in his poem: "Be with us unseen host."
Most importantly of all, Davidson's involvement with Simms also apparently
stimulated his creativity in both fiction and poetry. "Woodlands, 1956-1960" is
itself a kind of sincere invocation of Simms, as a sort of Muse of Southern poetry, to
be present with him in spirit and to inspire his work. Isolated in an increasingly
sterile and hostile academic environment, and not having written poetry for twenty
years, "Woodlands, 1956-1960" opened the floodgates of poetry. Davidson in the
next few years went on to write much of his best verse, and his first fiction —a novel
very much directly influenced by Simms's story "Sharp Snaffles," to which he refers
specifically in the text.4
This testimony of Davidson's artistic productivity, if properly understood, is a
far greater tribute to Simms as father of Southern Literature, than the extraordinary


3 M. E. Bradford, "Donald Davidson and the Great House Tradition: A Reading of `Woodlands,
1956-1960'."Published in Mark Winchell, ed. The Vanderbilt Tradition: Essays in Honor of
Thomas Daniel Young (LSU Press, 1991), pp. 84-91.
4 Donald Davidson, The Big Ballad Jamboree (University of Mississippi Press,.1996). I have
written an essay on the subject, entitled "A Major Simms Influence on Donald Davidson," and now
being considered for journal application.