William Gilmore Simms was one of the most versatile and prolific writers of his day; his eighty-two volumes include novels, short stories, poetry, plays, literary criticism, essays, biographies, and histories. Simms was also highly respected in his time as a magazine and newspaper editor.
The enormous literary output of William Gilmore Simms places him among the foremost writers of the early nineteenth century in the United States; indeed, he was the most important writer in the South at the time. His many novels are mostly historical romances in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, but they use southern settings, dialects, and heroes as their subject. His best-known novel, The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina (1835), deals with the issue of Native American dispossession, a theme also common to Cooper. Simms’s short stories are often told in the tall-tale mode, which was later popularized by the Southwest humorists. In addition to his fiction, Simms wrote a number of volumes of poetry and several plays, which, like the novels, have patriotic settings and subjects. His nonfiction works include histories, biographies, and several important essays of literary criticism, one of which details the difference between romance and novel. Though often noted for the quantity rather than the quality of his work, Simms occupies an important position in American letters.
William Gilmore Simms wrote extensively in all major literary genres. He began as a poet and achieved his first widespread fame in the northern United States with his long poetic work Atalantis: A Story of the Sea (1832). Although he continued to write and publish his verse throughout his lifetime and, indeed, felt himself to be a good poet, his reputation has never rested on his poetic abilities. Still, his poetry is not without interest, for Simms often reveals a sharp eye for natural detail in his descriptions, especially of the southern landscape. His accomplishments as a writer of short fiction only began to be appreciated in the late twentieth century.
Simms’s emphasis on realism can be seen in such works as “The Hireling and the Slave,” and his wonderful command of folk humor can be found in such literary “tall tales” as “Bald-Head Bill Bauldy” and “How Sharp Snaffles Got His Capital and Wife.” Longer stories such as “Paddy McGann” contain further elements of the tall tale and folklore. Simms was not a good dramatist; he wrote a number of aborted plays and, in the case of Pelayo, adapted a failed drama into novel form. His best play is considered to be Michael Bonham: Or, The Fall of Bexar, a Tale of Texas (pb. 1852), which deals with the Texas war for independence.
In his nonfiction works, Simms often turned to the history of the South. Of his four major biographies, two—The Life...
Although during his lifetime William Gilmore Simms’s popularity as a novelist ranked second only to that of James Fenimore Cooper, his reputation steadily diminished after his death, so that by the beginning of the twentieth century he was little more than a footnote in literary histories. With the University of South Carolina Press publications of The Letters of William Gilmore Simms (1952-1956; five volumes, Mary C. Simms Oliphant, editor) and the first volumes of The Centennial Edition of the Writings of William Gilmore Simms (1969-1975; sixteen volumes, John C. Guilds and James B. Meriwether, editors), however, there has been a growing interest in his work. Still, Simms’s contributions to the development of American literature in the first half of the nineteenth century have been much underrated. Put simply, Simms was the most important antebellum southern man of letters. He created a body of work that is awesome in size and scope. More than eighty separate volumes were published during his life, and ongoing research is uncovering more of his writings hidden in forgotten periodicals or under various pseudonyms.
When, in 1832, Simms first traveled to New York City, he was determined to establish himself as a writer of national importance. He made the necessary publishing connections and paid homage to the leading Northern literary figures. The publication of his poetic work Atalantis in that year was enthusiastically received, but it and his short novel Martin Faber, published the following year, were still apprenticeship pieces that followed patterns set down by others. With Guy Rivers, The Yemassee, and The Partisan, Simms not only staked out his own literary territory but also publicly placed himself in...
Butterworth, Keen, and James E. Kibler, Jr. William Gilmore Simms: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. This very thorough bibliography lists all writings about Simms in chronological order, from 1825 to 1979. The lengthy introduction gives general background information, and the index provides an efficient means of locating books and articles on specific topics relating to Simms.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. The American Short Story Before 1850: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Current-Garcia gives a useful overview of early nineteenth century American short fiction, including a chapter on “Simms and the Southern Frontier Humorists.” Several bibliographies are also included.
Guilds, John Caldwell. Simms: A Literary Life. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992. The first critical biography of Simms to appear in one hundred years, Guilds’s book proceeds in a chronological fashion and emphasizes Simms’s accomplishments as a novelist. Five appendices include a chart of birth and death dates for Simms’s fifteen children; the will of Nash Roach, Simms’s father-in-law, bequeathing the bulk of his estate to Simms and Chevillette Roach Simms, his wife; a letter written by Simms to the United States Congress in support of an international copyright bill; two elegies published in Charleston periodicals after...