Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 14: No 1) >> The Muse of Southern Literature >> Page 9

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Page 9

Secondary Scholarship | 2006
Transcription to abstract Idea."9 Then why does Simms so ardently defend the concrete
South? Why, as C. Hugh Holman presents him, and as I believe most
modern critics would agree, is Simms such a characteristic Southern writer,
with his literary truths revealed through a concrete and specific land and
past?10 A key to this quandary can be found in Simms's essay, "Sentimental
Prose Fiction," in the Southern Quarterly Review
In this essay Simms praises those who "devote their lives to
thought...." (and here he includes pure thought) and whose "toils and
sufferings conduct the race to the enjoyment usually of the "largest human
utility." But "We demand that these thoughts shall be in harmony... with the
general condition of humanity....11 This thought must relate to "work to be
done, sorrows to be endured, strifes to be encountered, and enemies to be
circumvented" by rational men in society; not egotistical or physiological
individual problems. Even literature with purely imaginative machinery,
such as the Faerie Queen of Spenser or Comus of Milton, thus has a
"utilitarian" purpose.12
Simms thus recognizes, and praises the necessity and utility of
abstract thought, but only ass it has an ultimate. benefit to man in society; onto
man's quest for spiritual understanding and elevation, in other words, as man
relates to other men or to God or to man's higher purposes in life, but not for
man's existential self. Hence the key to the Southern writer's desire for
concreteness. The Southern writer does not reject abstraction per se in his
concern for. concreteness; it is' only. an' abstraction that. removes man from
society that the Southern writer deplores.
Literature and poetry in fact have _great practical utility. Simms
devoted a three part lecture series, "The Poetry and the Practical," to this
subject.13 "Literature is but that higher education of a people," Simms
believed, "which enables them to set all their wheels in motion!" --the
wheels being Bacon's tillage, carriage, and manufacture, or agriculture,
commerce, and manufactures14
The abstract universals of literature Simms sought all his life to
promote—the higher truths of the human condition. But these truths had to
be grounded in a reality that had meaning to man as a social being: For-
Simms, that reality was the society of the antebellum South. Just as
Hawthorne viewed his little plot of New England as ample room for his
imagination, and as Faulkner created his universe in one county of
Mississippi, so Simms found the world of the South a microcosm of the
universal world.
In this Southern world was field enough for all the creativity and
talents that an artist could muster for the advancement of literature. Simms
recognized first of all that American literature was woefully undeveloped,
particularly dependent upon British productions, and secondly that Southern
literature was sadly inferior to the outpourings of the North, not because



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