Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> Highlights >> Giving Voice to the South: William Gilmore Simms
Giving Voice to the South: William Gilmore Simms

Documenting the American South commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Gilmore Simms, one of the nineteenth-century South's most prolific and respected authors. He is best known for his love of the region and his commitment to representing its promise through literature.

Simms was born April 17, 1806 in Charleston, South Carolina. He was essentially an autodidact, having received only six years of formal schooling. His editing career began in 1825, with The Album, a literary journal. In 1827, he produced two volumes of verse, Early Lays and Lyrical, and Other Poems. His first novel, Martin Faber: The Story of a Criminal, appeared in 1833, followed closely by Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia (1834), The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina (1835), and The Partisan: A Tale of the Revolution (1835). After the death of his first wife, Simms married Chevillette Eliza Roach, the daughter of a wealthy planter, in 1836. The couple went to live at "Woodlands," a family plantation Simms acquired as part of the marriage dowry, and in 1844, he served one term in the South Carolina House of Representatives. As sectional divides between the North and South deepened, Simms spoke out more fervently against northern attitudes. When the Civil War broke out, he felt the full sting of its destruction: Woodlands was burned twice—once in 1862 and again by Sherman's men in 1865—and his famous 10,000-volume library was lost, his wife died in 1863, and he was left nearly bankrupt. He continued to write tirelessly and work as an editor until his death on June 11, 1870.

Simms published eighty-two works in a variety of genres including poetry, biography, short fiction, and novels—most of which have a uniquely southern or patriotic twist. He had a particular interest in the Revolutionary period, and he is often compared to James Fennimore Cooper due to both writers' success with historical romance. Also like many of Cooper's works, Simms most famous novel, The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina (1835), speaks to the plight of North American Indians. He also continued writing poetry throughout his life despite his lack of recognition in this genre. Simms's poetry, which includes volumes such as Poems: Descriptive, Dramatic, Legendary and Contemplative (1853), is lauded by many critics for the realistic portrayal of the southern landscape. Though Simms's popularity had waned by the turn of the twentieth century, rising interest in sectional literatures as well as the discovery of some of his lost and unpublished works have brought him new appreciation.

Simms's writings are part of the "Library of Southern Literature," which includes a wide range of literary works of the American South published before 1923. This collection was originally based on Dr. Robert Bain's bibliography of the hundred most important southern literary works and continues to expand under the guidance of scholarly advisors.

Jennifer L. Larson