William Gilmore Simms was known in his lifetime as a novelist, short-story writer, poet, historian, and journalist; today his reputation rests on his novels. Simms’s childhood was an unusual one. His mother died while he was still an infant, and his father left the baby William in the care of his maternal grandmother. He seems to have had only casual schooling, but he read widely and listened intently to his grandmother’s stories of the American Revolution as it had occurred in the South. When the boy was ten years old, his father, a frontiersman who had gone westward toward the Mississippi River, paid a visit to Charleston, and at eighteen William went to visit his father on his plantation in what is now Mississippi.
During this visit he observed frontier life and American Indian tribes. Upon his return to Charleston, Simms published some poems, most of them with a Byronic flavor. In 1828 he entered upon the editorship of a short-lived magazine titled The Tablet. After its failure he became editor of the Charleston City Gazette, which opposed the election of John C. Calhoun. Because of the political animosity he incurred as a result, plus the deaths of his wife, grandmother, and father, Simms left for the North, where he found friends and a future.
Some early work was published shortly after he left Charleston, but his first important success came with the publication of Guy Rivers in 1834. A story of gold mining in northern Georgia, the novel, packed with action, is a romantic piece of writing with a realistic American theme. His next work was The Partisan, which was...
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William Gilmore Simms was the son of an Irish immigrant tradesman. His mother died when he was two, and Simms was left in the care of his maternal grandmother when his father moved to Tennessee and later to Mississippi. Simms’s formal schooling amounted to less than six years, and he was largely self-educated. At the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to a druggist but later left that trade to study law. In 1827, he was admitted to the bar in Charleston. His marriage to Anna Malcolm Giles in 1826 ended with her death in 1832. Simms’s literary talents became manifest very early in his life. At nineteen, he edited the literary journal, The Album (1825), and two years later published his first two volumes of verse. In 1828, he cofounded and edited The Southern Literary Gazette. He ventured into journalism as the editor of the daily newspaper, the Charleston City Gazette, from 1830 until its bankruptcy in 1832. Between 1833 and 1835, he published four novels, Martin Faber: The Story of a Criminal (1833), Guy Rivers: A Tale of Georgia (1834), The Yemassee, and The Partisan: A Tale of the Revolution (1835), and established his reputation as a significant voice in American fiction. In 1836, he married Chevilette Roach and moved to her father’s seven-thousand-acre plantation, “Woodlands.” His newly acquired wealth freed him to pursue his literary career more fully and to venture into new avenues, such as serving, from 1844 to 1846, as a representative to the South Carolina legislature. His marriage to Roach lasted until her death in 1863 and produced fourteen children. During the period from 1836 to 1860, in addition to his many literary productions, Simms was active in the editing of several magazines, including The Southern and Western Monthly Magazine (1845), The Southern Quarterly Review (1849-1855), and Russell’s Magazine (1857-1860), which he helped Paul Hamilton Hayne to edit. Simms’s fortunes were ruined by the Civil War; in 1865, “Woodlands” was burned by stragglers from William Tecumseh Sherman’s army. Reduced to poverty, Simms spent the final years of his life editing newspapers and writing to support himself and his children. He died in Charleston on June 11, 1870.