William Gilmore Simms Critical Essays

William Gilmore Simms Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William Gilmore Simms is often viewed as the successor to Sir Walter Scott in the fostering of Romanticism. Simms was fond of asserting that his works should be viewed as romances, filled with sweeps of the imagination, bold characterization, and clearly defined moral stances. His literary works, considered as a whole, can be viewed as an epic of the South; in the epic, there are realistic elements to be sure, but Simms was interested in realism only when it served his more consuming passion for creating works of originality and vitality that portrayed the South as it was and as it aspired to be ideally. Simms’s writings, too, can be associated with regionalism and the local-color movement in American letters, for he borrowed richly from the traditions and mores of his region to capture a sense of a spirit and a time.

“How Sharp Snaffles Got His Capital and His Wife”

“How Sharp Snaffles Got His Capital and His Wife,” published posthumously in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in October, 1870, is a short story which demonstrates at a high level of quality Simms’s particular and fanciful interest in local color and southern tall-tale humor. In early winter, a group of seven hunters, four professionals and three amateurs, gather around the campfire on a Saturday night after a week of hunting in the “Balsam Range” of mountains in North Carolina. Saturday night is dedicated among the professional hunters to what is called “The Lying Camp,” in which mountaineers engaged in a camp hunt, which sometimes lasts for weeks at a time, are encouraged to tell “long yarns” about their adventures and the wild experiences of their professional lives. The hunter who actually inclines to exaggeration in such a situation is allowed to deal in “all the extravagances of invention; nay, he is required to do so.” To be literal or to confine oneself to details of fact is a finable offense. The hunter is, however, required to exhibit a certain degree of art in his invented tales, “and thus he frequently rises into a certain realm of fiction, the ingenuities of which are made to compensate for the exaggerations, as they do in the ‘Arabian Nights’ and other Oriental romances.”

The tale for the evening is told, in dialect fashion, by Sharp Snaffles to the “Jedge,” the narrator of the story. Sharp tells the tale of how fourteen years ago he was in love with Merry Ann Hopson and sought to marry her. When Sharp appears at Squire Hopson’s house and announces his intentions, the squire tells Sharp that he does not have the types of possessions, or capital, that would attract a woman or that would enable her to live in style. Sharp knows he must get himself some capital, but he cannot figure out how, although he spends half the night thinking and figuring.

The next day, Sharp sees a flock of wild geese landing on a lake. Sharp calculates that there must be forty thousand geese on the lake and considers that he could get fifty cents a head for them if he could get them to the markets in Spartanburg and Greenville. His plan is to spread a huge net across the lake, and, after the geese have landed, at a key moment pull both ends of the net in quickly and catch all the geese. The plan works perfectly, except for the fact that after reeling all the geese in, Sharp wraps the rope around his left arm and his right thigh rather than tying it to the tree in front of him. As if of one mind and body, the geese lift from the lake and carry Sharp for several miles until they hit a tree and land in its branches. Suddenly the branch on which Sharp is sitting gives way and throws him backward into the tree trunk, which is hollow and filled with honey. In the midst of his prayers for deliverance, a huge bear begins to lower himself down, bottom end first, to get to the honey. Sharp sees his chance and grabs hold of the bear’s ankle; the bear is so frightened he claws his way out of the tree, taking Sharp with him. When they get to the top, Sharp pushes the bear out of the tree; the bear falls and breaks his neck.

Safely out of the tree, Sharp realizes the potential capital available to him in the bear, the geese, and the honey. When all of his dealings are done, he has sold 2,700 geese for $1,350, the bear’s hide, meat, grease, and marrow for $100, and 2,000 gallons of honey for $1,400. His wealth accumulated, Sharp then sets about the business of establishing himself as a man of capital by buying a 160-acre farm with a good house on it, furniture, and a mule for working his land. The rest of his money he has converted to gold and silver coins and loads up his pockets and his saddlebags.

As he prepares to go to Squire Hopson’s, Sharp tells his friend, Columbus Mills, of the squire’s talk about capital. Columbus tells Sharp that the squire has no room to talk; the squire owes Columbus a 350-dollar-note on which he has not paid a cent in three years and on which Columbus is holding the mortgage to the squire’s farm as security. Sharp asks Columbus if he will sell him the squire’s mortgage for the face value of the note, and Columbus agrees. Dressed in his best new outfit, Sharp then goes to Squire Hopson’s house; on the way, he meets Merry Ann and tells her that they are going to be married that evening. Merry Ann thinks that he has gone slightly crazy but agrees to follow along after him and see what happens.

The squire receives Sharp coldly, but he is impressed by Sharp’s rich clothing and his fancy new appearance. Sharp states that he has come on business and brings up the issue of the debt to Columbus Mills. The squire tells Sharp to tell Columbus he will pay him soon, and Sharp says that the squire misunderstands Sharp’s mission. The note, and consequently the mortgage, now belong to him, and, since he plans to be married this evening, he wants the squire to move out so that Sharp and his new bride can move in in the morning. The only way the squire can acquire any capital now and save his farm is to allow Sharp to marry Merry Ann. At first the squire protests, but when Sharp shows him the gold and silver coins in his saddlebags and his pockets he finally gives in and agrees to the wedding. Sharp fetches Parson Stovall, and the wedding is performed that evening, exactly as Sharp had promised Merry Ann. Thirteen years later, Sharp tells the Judge at the conclusion of his tale that he and Merry Ann have a happy marriage, nine beautiful children, and more capital than Sharp ever imagined.


Simms’s passion...

(The entire section is 2680 words.)