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20.00.05 The Works of William Gilmore Simms, by Clyde N. Wilson.

WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS (1806—1870) is a major American writer and,  after  Edgar Allan Poe,  the most important Southern literary figure of the 19th century.   Unlike the short-lived Poe, Simms wrote voluminously  and  in every  literary form:  short  story, novel, poetry, criticism, essay, history, and biography.  Though his work has  sometimes been considered uneven in quality, he often  wrote superbly.  Poe said that Simms was one of the best American writers of the time and that if  he had had the self-promotion machinery of  the New England literati his name would be a household  word.  Although he was widely read and admired in his time in Europe and the North, Simms was for a long time after the War between the States   dismissed as a mere Southern and second-rate writer;   he remains  today  unrepresented in “mainstream” anthologies of the best American literature.  Interestingly, in his own time the Northeastern critics who have dominated American literary discussion considered Simms to be distastefully racy and realistic.  Later, when “realism” became the fashion, they labeled him as too romantic and  “genteel.”    In recent years, a handful of devoted and talented scholars have been  forcing  out a more just recognition of Simms’s stature and achievements.  The ignoring and downplaying of Simms’s stature in American literature has been referred to as “intellectual murder.”

Simms was born and died in Charleston, South Carolina.  Though he traveled a great deal, he spent most of his life there or at his plantation  70 miles upcountry near Barnwell.   Simms was devoted to the creation of a literature that would represent and sustain America in the same way that European literatures  supported national identity.  He also believed that American literature  could  only grow and  achieve maturity  as a union of regional literatures since  the diverse country could not be represented by the culture of one region.  He worked for a lifetime at developing his vision of Southern literature, not only in his own work but   in  editing several newspapers and magazines in which he encouraged (and sometimes corrected) other writers.   Indeed, new Simms works are still being identified regularly from his anonymous and pseudonymous writings in such places.

James Kibler, in a masterful piece of scholarship,  has published the definitive collection of Simms’s poetry, the estimation of which has been rising.     Some of Simms’s nonfiction was collected in Views and Reviews:  In American History and Literature (1846), and more extensive collections are in preparation.   Many of Simms’s novels were revised and republished in his own lifetime and most have been republished once or more in recent years.  Simms excelled as a novelist  both of history and manners.   His historical “romances” were assiduously researched.  Anticipating   Alexander  Solzhenitsyn,  Simms believed that  fiction that was accurate in context  could provide good instruction in history.   He collected irreplaceable Revolutionary War manuscripts (which were burned by Sherman’s army) and interviewed survivors of historic events.   He literally recreated in fiction the history of South Carolina and the South Atlantic States in a series of colonial novels, a series of Revolutionary  War novels, and a series of books set in the newer, frontier Southern States such as Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee,  Alabama, and Mississippi, such as Guy Rivers, The Wigwam and the Cabin, and Border Beagles.    And these do not by any means comprise a full accounting of all his fictional works.  Simms bibliography  easily contains more than a hundred entries.

There is no good  comprehensive biography, and indeed Simms’s activities and writings were so vast that a biography would be a daunting task.  The “biographies” by Trent and Wakelyn  are  meritless academic potboilers that underestimate and misinterpret their subject.   Some worthwhile books on  Simms  are   John C. Guilds,  Simms: A Literary Life (1995);  John C. Guilds, ed.,  Long Years of Neglect:  The Work and Reputation of William Gilmore Simms (1988);  and   Sean R. Busick,  A Sober Desire for History:  William Gilmore Simms as Historian (2005).  Simms’s conflict with New England writers who assumed all the credit for the War of Independence and maliciously and deceitfully downplayed the role of the South is discussed in Clyde N. Wilson, “Tiger’s Meat :  William Gilmore Simms and the History of the American Revolution,” in The Simms Review, vol. 8 (2000).   For those who wish to delve further into Simms’s life and works, there is a wealth of material in The Simms Review, founded by Kibler in 1993 and still publishing  regularly  and in  The Letters of William Gilmore Simms in 6 volumes.   Finally, the ongoing  Simms Initiative project at the University of South Carolina (  is intended to make available all of Simms’s works in digital and print-on- demand  texts.

We have specifically recommended of Simms’s works The Life of Francis Marion (02.04.08), The Golden Christmas (08.04.01), colonial novels (11.01.03), Revolutionary War novels (11.02.03), The Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia (05.05.13), Poetry and the Practical (11.08.02), Selected Poetry (11.08.01), Stories and Tales (11.03.09),   Paddy McGann  (11.03.08)  and The Social Principle (10.04.01).