William Gilmore Simms: Contribution as American Writer

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      William Gilmore Simms, (1806-1870) often styled the "Cooper of the South," was born of poor parents in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1806. His mother died when he was very young, and his father moved west into the wilds of Mississippi. The boy was left behind to be reared by his grandmother, a poor but clever woman, who related to him tales of the Revolutionary War, through which she had lived. During a visit to his father, these tales were supplemented by stories of contemporary life on the borders of civilization. In this way Simms acquired a large part of the material for his romances.

William Gilmore Simms as American Writer
William Gilmore Simms

      Simms prospered financially, married well, became the owner of a fine estate, and bent every effort to further southern literature and assist southern writers. He became the center of a group of literary men in Charleston, of whom Hayne and Timrod were the most famous. The war, however, ruined Simms. His property and library were destroyed, and, though he continued to write, he never found his place in the new order of life. He failed to catch the public ear of a people satiated with fighting and hair-raising adventures. He survived but six years, and died in Charleston in 1870.

      Being of humble birth, Simms lacked the advantage of proper schooling. Although he was surrounded by aristocratic and exclusive society, he did not have the association of a literary center, such as the Concord and Cambridge writers enjoyed. He found no publishers nearer than New York, to which city he personally had to carry his manuscripts for publication. Yet with all these handicaps, he achieved fame for himself and his loved Southland. This victory over adverse conditions was won by sheer force of indomitable will, by tremendous activity, and by a great, honest, generous nature.

      His writings show an abounding energy and versatility. He wrote poetry, prose fiction, historical essays, and political pamphlets, and amazed his publishers by his speed in composition. His best work is The Yemassee (1835), a story of the uprising of the Indians in Carolina. The midnight massacre, the fight at the blockhouse, and the blood-curdling description of the dishonoring of the Indian chief's son are told with infectious vigor and rapidity. The Partisan (1835), Katherine Walton (1851), and The Sword and Distaff (1852), afterwards called Woodcraft, also show his ability to tell exciting tales, to understand Indian character, and to commemorate historical events in thrilling narratives.

      Simms wrote rapidly and carelessly. He makes mistakes in grammar and construction, and is often stilted and grandiloquent. All of his romances are stories of adventure which are enjoyed by boys, but not much read by others. Nevertheless, his best works fill a large place in southern literature and history. They tell in an interesting way the life of the border states, of southern crossroads towns, of colonial wars, and of Indian customs. What Cooper did for the North, Simms accomplished for the South. He lacked Cooper's skill and variety of invention, and he created no character to compare with Cooper's Leatherstocking; but he excelled Cooper in the more realistic portrayal of Indian character.

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