Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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Benedict Arnold: The Traitor. A Drama, In An Essay

Drama | 1863

          Throughout Simms’s career, one of his paramount concerns was the connection between art and history, and the role of the literary artist in conveying history.  While readers see Simms exploring these connections in his Revolutionary Romances, other scattered works of fiction, and the essays in Views and Reviews, one of the writer’s most intriguing presentations of the ability of art to interpret history is in the genre-mixing Benedict Arnold: The Traitor. A Drama, in an Essay.  Critic Miriam J. Shillingsburg regards Benedict Arnold as worthy of commendation for its “thoughtful revisiting in the essay portions of Simms’s theories of dramatic license and the relationship between history and art, and in the dramatic portions for its expansive treatment of a subject popular with dramatists throughout the nineteenth century”.[1]  Shillingsburg’s view of Benedict Arnold thus points to the work’s complexity.  While Simms began work on a dramatic version of Arnold’s betrayal in his late adolescence and intermittently worked on it over the following decades, the play was never unpublished until 1863, when it appeared in its current form in the Richmond Magnolia Weekly.[2]  These publication contexts ensured that the final version’s retelling of the title character’s betrayal would become a vexed commentary on the North and South, and each section’s latter-day adherence to the principles of the American Revolution.  As a result, while Benedict Arnold is one of Simms’s more obscure works, its aesthetic experimentation — evidenced by Simms’s combining  drama and essay, two genres generally considered to be disparate — and its sophisticated intellectual exploration of the ramifications of history make it worthy of serious critical attention.

          The betrayal of Benedict Arnold captured the American imagination throughout the nineteenth century, and for Simms, a writer profoundly interested by the meaning of the American Revolution, the attraction to Arnold was irresistible.  While noting that Simms’s sources are unclear, Shillingsburg remarks that Simms “wrote his first dramatic treatment of Arnold” in 1830.  Subsequent treatments occurred in 1845, when he “published an article on Benedict Arnold as a subject for art, and he included in an extended review of Anna Seward’s monody on [Arnold co-conspirator] John André’s virtues many comments about André’s defects and inglorious death.  He pointed out that the story of Arnold’s heroism and fall to treachery ‘is dramatic in its character,’ but the treason itself lacked ‘the two greatest essentials of dramatic art, individuality in development, and an action continually rising in interest, to the catastrophe.’”[3]

          The year 1846 would see Simms beginning to treat Benedict Arnold more directly as a test case for his theories of the connections between art and history.  In a 20 February 1846 letter to E.A. Duyckinck, Simms stated that he was currently “busy on the fourth or fifth article for Vol. 2, of Views & Reviews.  It is a group from Rev. Hist. — in which Arnold and André, Washington & Miss Seward, figure…It concludes with a notice of a dram. fragment by [George Henry] Calvert on Arnold[4], with a Dram. fragmt. of my own on the same subject.”[5] Subsequent letters also point to Simms’s intentions to incorporate “a rough sketch of a tragedy on the subject of Arnold” into that same collection of essays.[6]  While Simms does include an essay on Major André in Views and Reviews, it appears without the dramatic fragments; it is unclear why he decided against their inclusion.  Shillingsburg notes that a version of Benedict Arnold had “been accepted in the form of a dramatic poem in 1847 to appear in Graham’s, though it never appeared,” and that in the following year, “Simms ‘confided a rude draft’ to an actor [W.C. Forbes][7] who held it for a year but never produced it.”[8] 

          Despite these efforts, a full dramatic treatment of Benedict Arnold did not appear until the current version, published in twelve weekly installments in the Richmond, VA Magnolia Weekly from May-August 1863.  Publication in this paper meant that Simms was writing to an explicitly Confederate audience.  Southern views on the Civil War often interpreted the conflict as a second American Revolution, a perspective that Simms knew would influence readers of his “drama in an essay.”  The connections between Arnold, the British, and the North on the one hand, and Washington, the Patriot cause, and the South on the other are thus inescapable, and readers should be alert to the ways in which Simms’s drama engages these tensions.  Nevertheless, such readings should be balanced by the author’s desire to interpret the story of Arnold for more universal historical and aesthetic purposes.  Shillingsburg provides a useful observation for navigating this tension, noting that “Simms was more interested in the interplay of history and drama than in wrenching the history to polemics of his day, and he lamented that his generation was still too close in time to Arnold’s treachery to allow the writer to shape and augment the known events for dramatic purposes,” while the writer nevertheless made explicit various connections between “new” and “old” wars.[9]  Benedict Arnold thus inhabits multiple registers, making this somewhat obscure work a significant source for those interested in Simms’s historical and aesthetic theories, as well as his thinking about the connections between the Revolution and Civil War.

          The Simms Initiatives copy of Benedict Arnold is comprised of scans of the Magnolia Weekly installments; two of these scans are of photocopies of the originals, while the rest are scans of the pages of the Magnolia Weekly itself.  The first two installments include the paper’s masthead and date, while the subsequent ten do not. 

W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1] Shillingsburg, Miriam J.  “Simms in the War-Time Richmond Weeklies.” Southern Literary Journal (2004), 42

[2] Shillingsburg.  “Simms’s Benedict Arnold: The Hero as Traitor.”  Southern Studies (Fall 1978), 276.

[3] ibid.  Shillingsburg identifies the 1845 treatment as “The Case of Major André” in the July 1845 Southern and Western Monthly Magazine and Review.

[4] Calvert’s Arnold and André. An Historical Drama appears not to have been published in its entirety until 1876, though it was copyrighted in 1864.  The preface to that work, written in December 1863, notes that “one Scene, the second of the first Act, was written long ago, and was printed in 1840.”  Simms is presumably referring to this scene as the “dram. fragment…on Arnold.”  To my knowledge, no comparison of Simms’s and Calvert’s treatments of Benedict Arnold has been made to this point.

[5] Letters 2: 146-47

[6] Letters 2: 152

[7] Letters 2: 460

[8] Shillingsburg.  “Simms in the War-Time Richmond Weeklies,”  42

[9] ibid, 44-45.