"No errors of opinion can possibly be dangerous in a country where opinion is left free to grapple with them." -- William Gilmore Simms
William Gilmore Simms (April 17, 1806 — June 11, 1870) was a poet, novelist and historian from the American South whose novels achieved great prominence during the 19th century, with Edgar Allan Poe pronouncing him the best novelist America had ever produced. In recent decades, though, Simms' novels have fallen out of favor, although he is still known among literary scholars as a major force in Antebellum literature. He is also remembered for his strong support of slavery and for his opposition to Uncle Tom's Cabin, in response to which he wrote reviews and a novel.
"Genius is the very eye of intellect and the wing of thought; it is always in advance of its time, and is the pioneer for the generation which it precedes.""He who would acquire fame must not show himself afraid of censure. The dread of censure is the death of genius.""I believe that economists put decimal points in their forecasts to show they have a sense of humor.""Most men remember obligations, but are not often likely to be grateful; the proud are made sour by the remembrance and the vain silent.""Neither praise or blame is the object of true criticism. Justly to discriminate, firmly to establish, wisely to prescribe, and honestly to award. These are the true aims and duties of criticism.""Not in sorrow freely is never to open the bosom to the sweets of the sunshine.""Tact is one of the first mental virtues, the absence of it is fatal to the best talent.""Tears are the natural penalties of pleasure. It is a law that we should pay for all that we enjoy.""The dread of criticism is the death of genius.""The only true source of politeness is consideration.""The true law of the race is progress and development. Whenever civilization pauses in the march of conquest, it is overthrown by the barbarian."
Simms was born on April 17, 1806, in Charleston, South Carolina, of Scottish-Irish ancestors. His mother died during his infancy, and his father failed in business and joined Coffee's Indian fighters; as a result, Simms was brought up by his grandmother. In his teen years, he worked as a clerk in a drug store but began to study law at the age of eighteen. He married Anne Malcolm Giles in 1826. The bar of Charleston admitted him to practice in 1827, though he soon abandoned this profession for literature.
He first wrote poetry at the age of eight, and in his 19th year he produced a monody on General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (Charleston, 1825). Two years later, in 1827, Lyrical and Other Poems and Early Lays appeared. In 1828 he became a journalist as well as editor and part owner of the City Gazette, a role he held until 1832 when the publication failed. Simms then devoted his attention entirely to writing and in rapid succession published Tile Vision of Cones, Cain, and Other Poems (1829); The Tricolor, or Three Days of Blood in Paris (1830); and his strongest poem, Atalantis, a Tale of the Sea (1832). Atalantis established his fame as an author. His novel Martin Faber, the Story of a Criminal, an expanded version of an earlier short story called "The Confessions of a Murderer", was published in 1833 and made Simms known to a national audience.
Novels about the South
Simms wrote a number of popular novels between 1830 and 1860, usually focusing on the pre-colonial and colonial periods of Southern history. These included such titles as The Yemassee (1835); The Lily and the Totem, or, The Huguenots in Florida (1850); Vasconselos (1853); and The Cassique of Kiawah (1859). Many critics believe The Cassique of Kiawah to be Simms's best written work. At first, Southern readers, especially those in his home town of Charleston did not support Simms's work because he lacked an aristocratic background. Eventually, however, he was referred to as the Southern version of James Fenimore Cooper and Charleston residents invited him into their prestigious St. Cecilia Society.
Simms also wrote eight novels set in South Carolina during the American Revolutionary War, beginning with The Partisan (1835), which was likely Simms's most-read novel, and Katherine Walton (1851). Other titles included Mellichampe (1836), The Kinsmen (1841), The Forayers (1855), Eutaw (1856), and Joscelyn (1867). Finally, Simms wrote ten novels dealing with the expansion into the frontier territory from Georgia to Louisiana, such as Richard Hurdis; or, the Avenger of Blood. A Tale of Alabama (1838) and Border Beagles: A Tale of Mississippi (1840). In 1852, Simms published The Tennessean’s Story, his only full-length work of Southern humor. He also wrote poetry and, in a letter to literary critic and poet Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Simms said that he was not interested in form as much as content, torn "between the desire to appear correct, and the greater desire to be original and true".
Simms was one of the best, and most respected, historians of his day. His History of South Carolina (1842) served for several generations as the standard school textbook on the state's history. He also wrote enormously popular biographies of Revolutionary War heroes Francis Marion, Nathanael Greene, and John Laurens, as well as John Smith and the Chevalier Bayard. Additionally, Simms was a popular lecturer on American history and accumulated one of the largest collections of Revolutionary War manuscripts. Unfortunately, most of this collection was lost when Sherman's army burned his home.
Simms is also remembered today for his strong support of slavery and for his opposition to Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, in response to which he wrote reviews and a book. His Anti-Tom novel was The Sword and the Distaff.
Even though The Sword and the Distaff came out only a few months after Stowe's novel, it contains a number of sections and discussions that are clearly debating Stowe's book and view of slavery. The novel focuses on the Revolutionary War and its aftermath through the lives of Captain Porgy and one of his slaves. Many of Simms other writings took a similar pro-slavery viewpoint.
Simms' book was one of between twenty and thirty Anti-Tom novels written after Stowe's book. As in Simms' book, these novels tended to feature a benign white patriarchal master and a pure wife, both of whom presided over child-like slaves in a benevolent extended-family-style plantation. Simms' novel was popular enough that it was reprinted in 1854 under the title Woodcraft.
In Simms' later years, he became part of the Southern plantation class and firmly supported slavery and Southern secession. During the American Civil War Simms espoused the side of the Secessionists in a weekly newspaper and suffered damage at the hands of the Federal troops when they entered Charleston. He served in the state House of Representatives in 1844—1846, after which he was defeated in the election for lieutenant-governor by only one vote. The University of Alabama conferred on him the degree of LL.D. He died at his home at 13 Society Street in Charleston on June 11, 1870; he is buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
By the mid-1840s, Simms's fame for his novels was so great that Edgar Allan Poe declared Simms to be "The best novelist which this country has, on the whole, produced" and "immeasurably the greatest writer of fiction in America". Simms's story collection The Wigwam and the Cabin was singled out by Poe as "decidedly the most American of American books". However, despite having achieved a very good literary reputation during his lifetime, today Simms' novels are, for the most part, out of print. Still, he is known among literary scholars as a major force in Antebellum literature.
A large bust of Simms is centrally located in Charleston's Battery Park.