Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu
William Gilmore Simms, 1806-1870
Simms, William Gilmore (1806-1870) Writer.
Simms was born in Charleston, S.C., and lived much of his life in or near it, making frequent visits to northern publishing centers and to the Gulf Coast and the southern mountains. His extensive knowledge of southern regions influenced novels and tales set in the Low Country, such as The Yemassee (1835), The Partisan (1835), and The Golden Christmas (1852), which trace the development of the region from the colonial era through the Revolution and into the antebellum period. Simms also published border and mountain romances like Richard Hurdis (1838) and Voltmeier (1869), set in the antebellum backwoods South.
To a greater extent, perhaps, than any other 19th-century southern author, he gave a comprehensive picture of his region in its historical and cultural diversity—of the Low Country with its class hierarchy, its agrarian economy, its increasingly conservative politics, and its keen sectional self-consciousness; of the Gulf South, both civilized and violent, part plantation, part frontier; and of the Appalachian Mountain South in its pioneer phase. His writing exhibits qualities that mark southern literature from its beginnings: a sense of time and history, a love of southern landscape, a respect for southern social institutions, and a firm belief in class stratification and enlightened upper-class rule. In addition to fiction, poetry, drama, orations, and literary criticism, he wrote a history and a geography of South Carolina and biographies of Francis Marion, Captain John Smith, the Chevalier Bayard, and Nathanael Greene. At the beginning and near the end of his career, he edited several South Carolina newspapers, and in the 1840s and 1850s he served as editor of important southern journals, among them the Magnolia, the Southern and Western, and the proslavery Southern Quarterly Review, which gave voice to sectional issues.
The embodiment of southern letters, Simms was also an influential spokesman for what he saw as the region's social and political concerns. A unionist in the 1832 nullification controversy, in the 1840s he supported the intensely nationalistic Young America group, which pushed for American freedom from British literary models. Active in politics, he served in the South Carolina Legislature from 1844 to 1846, conferred with prominent planters like James Henry Hammond about southern agricultural policies, conducted a copious correspondence with fire-eating Beverley Tucker of Virginia about slavery and secession, and helped develop the proslavery argument. As his southern nationalism mounted in the 1840s and 1850s, he supported the annexation of Texas and advocated the creation of a southern empire in the Caribbean. When the Civil War broke out, he served as advisor to several southern politicians and made elaborate proposals for Confederate military defenses. During the war he wrote little of literary importance save the lively backwoods novel Paddy McGann (1863); after it, he ruined his health by the incessant writing and editing chores he took on to support his impoverished family. Energetic and often humorous, his work is important for its sweeping picture of the colonial and antebellum South in its regional diversity and also for its representation of continuing southern literary and intellectual issues.
Mary Ann Wimsatt
Southwest Texas State University
C. Hugh Holman, The Roots of Southern Writing: Essays on the Literature of the American South (1972); James E. Kibler, Jr., The Poetry of William Gilmore Simms: An Introduction and Bibliography (1978); with Keen Butterworth, William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide (1980); Mary C. Simms Oliphant et al., eds., The Letters of William Gilmore Simms (1952-56).