Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 15: No 2) >> Domesticating the Gothic: Realism and Romance in Simms's Richard Hurdis >> Page 1

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Secondary Scholarship | 2007
Transcription Domesticating the Gothic: Realism and Romance in
Simms's Richard Hurdis

Travis D. Montgomery

In some respects, the 1838 publication of Richard Hurdis marked a
turning point in Simms's literary career.* According to John Guilds, Richard
Hurdis was an "experimental novel" in which Simms explored the dramatic
potential of first-person narration, anticipating the "single vessel of
consciousness technique" of Henry James ("Introduction" xix-xx). As he
experimented with narration to enhance the novel's plausibility, Simrns
employed other narrative strategies to give Richard Hurdis an aura of
verisimilitude. For example, he faithfully depicted the brutality of frontier
life, and he based his portrayal of the Mystic Brotherhood upon the historical
Murrell Gang, a band of criminals that operated along the. Natchez Trace.'
Striving for realism in his depictions of Old Southwest frontier culture,
Simms also distinguished his novel from its gothic antecedents. Thus while
Richard Hurdis highlighted themes of murder, madness, and internecine
strife, Simms eschewed the supernatural. All of these literary maneuvers
served to establish this novel as proto-realist fiction.
While such literary experimentalism may signal a nascent realism in
American literature, one should remember that Simms preferred the term
romance" to "novel." Indeed, Richard Hurdis is part of his cycle of
"Border Romances." In his introduction to The Yemassee (1835), Simms
differentiates between novels and romances. He insists that whereas the
novel "is confined to the felicitous narration of common and daily events,"
the romance "does not insist upon what is known, or even what is probable"
(qtd. in Ridgley 35). For Simms, the romance "grasps at the possible; and
placing a human agent in hitherto untried situations, it exercises its ingenuity
in extricating him from them, while describing his feelings and his fortunes
in their progress" (qtd. in Ridgely 35). On the surface, the definition of
romance proffered here, which leaves little room for gothic supernaturalism,
does not conflict with the representational aims of the British domestic
novel. For this reason, Simms',s "romance" and the popular British novel
both exhibit literary realism. The difference between the two forms,
according to Simms, lies in narrative scope. While the novel confines itself
to the quotidian details of middle class life, the romance follows the epic
impulse, grasping "at the possible" and placing characters in "untried
situations."2 Thus Simms expects the romance to partake of epic grandeur

* An early version of this essay was presented at the Seventeenth Annual American Literature
Conference in San Francisco on May 25, 2006.
1 See John Guilds's "Introduction to Richard Hurdis" for information on Simms's use of
historical sources and his realistic treatment of frontier life. Guilds provides additional
commentary on.these topics in an afterword (pp. 356-72) and in an appendix entitled "Historical
Background" (pp. 375-8).
2 In his introduction to The Yemassee, Simms connects the romance to the epic tradition,
claiming that the romance is "the substitute which the people of today offer for the ancient epic"
(qtd. in Ridgley 36).