Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 16: No 1) >> ''That Feel and Touch of the Elbow": William Gilmore Simms and the Whig Interpretation of History >> Page 23

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Secondary Scholarship | 2008
Transcription "That Feel and Touch of the Elbow": William Gilmore Simms
and the Whig Interpretation of History

Samuel C. Smith

William Gilmore Simms's historical writings, not his novels and poems,
first attracted me.* But in many ways, reading his history is like reading a good
novel or poem. With the present state of academic historical publications, so
often burdened with unimaginative style and irrelevance, Simms is a breath of
fresh air. Modern academic history is rarely read by anyone other than
professional historians. The craft has long left the literary guild for the supposed
exactness of the scientific laboratory, and the public is paying scant attention.
The public read Simms.
But the type of history Simms wrote is not without its problems. One is
sometimes compelled to ask of Simms where the exactness in history begins and
the elevation of art ends. How do the two play on and complement or distract the
goals of each? As Clyde Wilson has observed, any analysis of Simms's historical
contribution must take into account "the stormy intimacy of fact and fiction."1 A
strong contribution toward understanding this dynamic is Sean Busick's work A
Sober Desire for History. Busick concludes that Simms's skilled orchestration of
historical fact and imaginative art resulted in accurate and enjoyable history.2
Yet, beyond the use of art and its interaction with evidence, an important
problem remains concerning Simms's overall use of history itself David Moltke-
Hansen has written that Simms "fully accepted" and worked from a "whig
philosophy of history, as Sir Herbert Butterfield has styled it." He argued that
Simms regionalized this whig philosophy in order "to keep the South on its
ascending course.""Fundamental" to Simms's view was that "history belongs to
the whigs" and "favors progress," that is, "progressives deservedly are winners."
Further elucidating this point Moltke-Hansen believes that Simms saw history as
"the story of man's mouvement or progress toward full and proper realization and
enjoyment of liberty."3 One might say that Simms did for the Old South what
George Bancroft did for the nation as a whole. Yet, as necessary as it may seem

* Samuel C. Smith is Associate Professor of History at Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA.
1 Clyde N. Wilson, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Historians, 1607-1865
(Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1984), s.v. "William Gilmore Simms," by Clyde N. Wilson.
2 Sean R. Busick, A Sober Desire for History: William Gilmore Simms as Historian, (Columbia:
University of South Carolina Press, 2005). In this excellent evaluation of Simms as a historian,
Busick explores Simms's deft use of art and literature in historical writing. See especially chapters
one and six.
3 David Moltke-Hansen, "Ordered Progress: The Historical Philosophy of William Gilmore
Simms" in "Long Years of Neglect ": The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Sininas, ed. John
Caldwell Guilds (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1988), 126, 127, 131; Moltke-
Hansen. "Between Plantalidn and Frontier: The South of William Gilmore Simms" in William
Gilmore Simms and the American Frontier, ed. John Caldwell Guilds and Caroline Collins (Athens,
Georgia: VGA Press, 1997), 10.