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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
ONE of the stalwart pioneers of American literature was the South-Carolinian, William G. Simms. He cultivated letters under comparatively adverse conditions. He produced, under the whip of necessity and by force of a vigorous gift for literary composition, a remarkable number of books, many of them below his normal power. Yet some of his Revolutionary and Colonial romances have a merit likely to give them a lasting audience. Boys, who are keen on the scent of a stirring plot and a well-told story, still read Simms with gusto. Moreover, in making literary use of the early doings of his native State and of other Southern and border States, he did a real service in drawing attention to and awakening interest in local United States history. Simms had the wisdom, in a day when it was rarer than it is now, to draw upon this rich native material lying as virgin ore for the novelist. No other man of his time made more successful use of it.  1
  William Gilmore Simms was born at Charleston, South Carolina, April 17th, 1806. His father was a self-made man of decided force, though lacking education. William had only a common-school training; and before studying law, was a clerk in a chemical house. He was admitted to the bar when twenty-one years of age; but cared little for the profession, indicating his preference the same year by publishing two volumes of poems. Throughout his career Simms courted the Muse; but his verse never became an important part of his achievement. In 1828 he became editor and part owner of the Charleston City Gazette, which took the Union side during the Nullification excitement. He held the position for four years, when the newspaper was discontinued because of political dissensions, leaving the editor in financial straits. After a year’s residence in Hingham, Massachusetts,—where his first novel, ‘Martin Faber, the Story of a Criminal,’ was written,—he returned to South Carolina; settling finally on his plantation Woodlands, near Medway, in that State, where he lived for many years the life of a genial country gentleman, a large slave-owner, his mansion the center of an open-handed hospitality. Simms was in these years the representative Southern author, visited as a matter of course by travelers from the North. This life was varied also by political office: he was for many years a member of the South Carolina Legislature, and was once an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant-governor.  2
  Personally Simms was an impulsive, choleric, generous-hearted man, full of pluck and energy, widely interested in the affairs of his land, doing steadily what he conceived to be right. During his meridian of strength he prospered, though driven to work hard to keep up his style of living. But when the war came he suffered the common lot of well-conditioned Southerners, and was almost ruined. Thereafter, until his death, it was an up-hill struggle. Simms was frankly, warmly sectional in his feelings, stoutly maintaining the right of the South to secede. A sympathetic picture of the days of his activity, in both sunshine and storm, is given in Professor William P. Trent’s biography of him prepared for the ‘American Men of Letters’ series. Simms published more than thirty volumes of novels and shorter tales: his verse alone counts up to nearly twenty books, and in addition he wrote histories,—including several books of South Carolina biographies,—edited various standard authors, and contributed almost countless articles to periodicals. The voluminous nature of his writings explains the ephemerality of much of his work, and suggests his faults,—carelessness of style and looseness of construction, and an inclination to the sensational. Simms’s bloody scenes are generally in full view of the audience: he did not see the value of reserve. But his good qualities are positive: he has lively characterization, brisk movement, a sense of the picturesque, and great fertility of invention.  3
  It is unnecessary, in the case of a writer so fecund, to catalogue his works: the most powerful and artistic are those dealing with his native State; and the chapter quoted from ‘The Yemassee,’ the most popular and perhaps the best of all his fiction,—a story describing the uprising of the Indian tribe of that name, and the bravery of the early Carolinians in repulsing them,—gives an admirable idea of his gift for the graphic presentation of a dramatic scene. ‘Guy Rivers,’ in 1834, was Simms’s first decided success in native romance; and crude as it is, has plenty of bustling action to hold the attention. The Revolutionary quadrilogy beginning with ‘The Partisan’ (1835), and ending with ‘Katharine Walton’ (1851), including also ‘Mellichampe’ and ‘The Kinsman,’—all tales of Marion and his troopers and the British campaign in the Carolinas; the group of short stories known as ‘Wigwam and Cabin’ (1845), dealing with frontier and Indian life; and the much later ‘The Cassique of Kiawah’ (1860), which depicts colonial days in Charleston,—are superior examples of his scope and style. Both the American and English public of that day took to his work: ten of his novels received German translation.  4
  Simms was conscientious and indefatigable in getting the material for his tales: reading the authorities in print and manuscript, traveling in order to study the physical aspects of the country and gather oral legends and scraps of local history. Thus he came to know well, and to be able to reproduce with truth and spirit, the Indians and white men who filled his mind’s eye. The reader of to-day is more likely to underestimate than to overestimate Simms in this regard. He was a writer with a very conspicuous talent for character limning and narrative, which was aided by years of ceaseless pen-work. Under less practical pressure, and with a keener sense of the obligation of the artist to his art, he might have ranked with Cooper. As it is, with all allowance for shortcomings, he is an agreeable figure whether he be considered as author or man.  5
 
 
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