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 27

image of pageExplore Inside

Page 27

Secondary Scholarship | 2008
Transcription Recognition of history's complexity was at the forefront of Simms's
literary efforts. As Nancy Grantham has observed, Simms saw the frontier as a
center "of cultural confrontation, a battleground where various cultural identities
confront each other and where the American cultural identity is defined and
eventually solidified." 15 John Guilds has observed that on a larger scale Simms
"saw organic wholeness in the multiplicity of forces and influences shaping
American history from its beginnings to his own times." He was "fascinated by
the symmetry of historical patterns" and could identify "threads of unity in the
complex cultural woof from which the fabric of a new nation was being woven."
He had embarked on a "sustained, interconnected literary saga covering more
than four hundred years" of his country's history.16
The balance of The History of South Carolina, most of which deals with
the American Revolution, does not bear resemblance to oversimplification.
Granted, Simms wrote in a fast-paced, dramatic, and linear style. But style of
presentation should not be confused with philosophical purpose. That is, a linear
style does not necessarily imply the employment of selective evidence. History is
story; story is narrative, and narrative is most commonly linear. Yet, one can
write as Simms did and still adhere to history as a web of complexity. Linear
style makes complexity accessible. There is a difference between simplifying
complexity and dismissing it. The reader soon discovers that The History of
South Carolina contains no whig straight line, as it were, but a carefully crafted,
adventurous journey of twists and turns, bringing the complex to a level of
understanding and enjoyment —a rare talent in any field of writing.
Simms's view of history's complexity is evident in his treatment of both
patriot and tory in South Carolina. He goes to great length to show that the civil
struggle was not driven by an impersonal cause and effect force. He made a
special point to show that loyalists were human beings with wills, people with a
wide array of complex choices. He underscored the fact that many justifiable
circumstances came to bear on the eventual decision for some to be loyal to the
crown and some not. Simms believed the term "tory" unfortunate and misleading
since the Carolinians who sided with the crown did so from an "honest" mind and
"a just sense of duty." Granted, he believed they were "behind the time" and
slow to take in the confusing and "hourly changing condition of their country." 17
It was, in fact, the complexity of the times that drove both sides to their
respective positions.
Simms believed that a key lesson to learn from the history of South
Carolina's role in the American Revolution was that people must allow the very
complexity of past events to drive them toward the safety and certainty of
tradition and place.

15 Nancy Grantham, "Simms's Frontier: A Collision of Cultures," in William Gilmore Simms and
the American Frontier, eds. John Caldwell Guilds and Caroline Collins (Athens, Georgia: The
University of Georgia Press, 1997), 106.
16 John Caldwell Guilds, Simms: A Literary Life (Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of
Arkansas Press, 1992), 338.
17 Ibid., 136-137; for examples and discussion of Simms's even-handed treatment of American
loyalists see Busick, A Sober Desire for History, 47, 56-58, 73, 79-82.