Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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South Caroliniana Library Collection of W.G. Simms Physical Materials

Physical Materials

          The curation and digitization of the South Caroliniana Library Collection of William Gilmore Simms Physical Materials represents an evolution in the Simms Initiatives mission: in addition to making digitally accessible Simms's literary productions, this collection makes available various materials of iconography and realia that help to situate Simms, and his works, within the personal and historical contexts of the author’s life and times. These materials also provide researchers with intriguing examples of the ways in which Simms’s life and work were preserved by, and influential on, his descendants and other leading South Carolinians.

          The collection consists of items donated to the South Caroliniana Library by the estates of two of Simms's descendants, Charles Carroll Simms and Mary C. Simms Oliphant Furman, as well as items the Library purchased at auction. As the estate donations included items that were related to other aspects of South Carolina history, all items had to be carefully researched and sorted to create a coherent, Simms-focused collection. Simms Initiatives staff curated these items according to the following criteria: first, the item had to have a direct connection to the author. For some items, Simms's ownership or use was obvious, and these were included. For others, ownership or use was less certain; in these cases, we considered whether or not the item could have been feasibly owned or used by the author. Second, we considered the connection of an item to Simms's work and subjects. For example, Simms Initiatives staff considered a painting titled The Cassique of Accabee, likely by John Gadsby Chapman. While both Simms's ownership of the painting and his relationship with the artist are uncertain, it shares a title with one of Simms's early verse epics, its subject matches that of the book, and it dates from the mid-nineteenth century. It also came to the library through a Simms family estate.  So, its connection to the author is significant enough for inclusion.

          Researchers will find both two- and three-dimensional items in the collection. The two-dimensional items are all illustrations, including large lithographed and engraved prints featuring Simms himself, paintings, family photographs, and small illustrations that have been cut from books, presumably by the author. A significant number of this last group come from National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans, a two-volume collection of brief biographical sketches and illustrations edited by Simms's friend Evert A. Duyckinck. Based on a 15 March 1861 letter, Simms knew about his friend's work on such a project;[1] the first edition of this text appeared in 1862, and the post-War letters of Simms and Duyckinck are peppered with discussions of the work, and Simms's eagerness to both possess and be included in a forthcoming second edition. From this second edition, which issued in 1868, Simms apparently cut out many illustrations focusing on Revolution-era South Carolinians and authors Simms saw as his artistic peers. Many of the illustrations of Revolutionary figures were later used by Simms's granddaughter, Mary C. Simms Oliphant, for inclusion in her South Carolina history textbook, used by generations of schoolchildren in the mid-to-late twentieth century. As a result, some of these items feature cropping marks and instructions used by the publisher for inclusion in the textbook.

          Three-dimensional items are varied, ranging from furniture and flatware used by the Simms family to one of the author's handkerchiefs. A drop-leaf table and a set of swan-back chairs owned by Simms's father-in-law, Nash Roach, are key three-dimensional items. Likely used at Woodlands, this furniture was passed down and saw use by the family throughout the generations. Also of interest are silver items, including a formal tea set and a brush and mirror, emblazoned with Simms's self-created “Video Volans” crest. This crest identified the tea set to South Caroliniana Library staff, who bought the set at auction. While its auction listing did not include any reference to Simms, the crest definitively proclaimed its connection to the author. Taken together, these three-dimensional items do much to suggest Simms's everyday life, how he conceived of himself within the contexts of lowcountry plantation society, and his relationship with his father-in-law, Nash Roach, as well as other leading lowcountry families, like the Babcocks of Charleston. 

          On the whole, researchers will find the South Caroliniana Library Collection of William Gilmore Simms Physical Materials to provide a rare look into the author's life and mind. These items both display and situate the author's life and broad intellectual interests, providing heretofore-unavailable contexts. Further, as Simms's plantation, Woodlands, was destroyed in the waning days of the Civil War, many of the material records of Simms's life were destroyed; this collection mitigates that loss by providing a tangible glimpse into the personal world of one of nineteenth-century America's most prolific and important men of letters.

W. Matthew J. Simmons

[1]          Letters IV: 347