William Gilmore Simms Long Fiction Analysis
As early as 1835, in the preface to The Yemassee, William Gilmore Simms attempted to define his goals as a writer. He distinguished his full-length fiction as romances rather than novels. Following definitions already in vogue, Simms described the novel as picturing ordinary people in everyday situations, both domestic and common. These works he traced to Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. The romance, on the other hand, he saw as the modern-day equivalent to the ancient epic, drawing its inspiration and power from both drama and poetry. The romance (as practiced by writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and James Fenimore Cooper) was of “loftier origins” than the novel. Its characters were individuals caught up in extraordinary, uncertain, even improbable events. As Simms saw it, the writer of a romance was not as bound by strict logic as was the novelist; indeed, the romancer’s ingenuity in plotting was often a strong point in the work. As critics have pointed out, a number of Simms’s supposed literary sins—stock characters, absurd resolutions, inflated dialogue—resulted from the Romantic tradition in which he worked rather than from a lack of art or skill.
To categorize Simms simply as a writer of romances is, however, somewhat misleading, and later studies emphasized the strong sense of realism that is found in his work. During his lifetime, Simms was regularly accused of exceeding the bounds of propriety. He answered these objections on numerous occasions. In his “Advertisement” to Mellichampe, for example, he insisted that his purpose was to “adhere as closely as possible, to the features and the attributes of real life.” Thus, although he endeavored to invest his stories with noble characters involved in stirring adventures, he wished to write neither “a fairy tale, [n]or a tale in which none but the colors of the rose and rainbow shall predominate.”
This sense of realism, which must have seemed uncouth in Simms’s own time, has come to be recognized as one of his strongest traits. He was clearly influenced by the “realism” of the legends and frontier tales of his youth and in the writings of the southern and southwestern humorists. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes was published in 1835, the same year as The Yemassee and The Partisan. (Simms would himself write several brilliant tall tales such as “Bald-Head Bill Bauldy” and “How Sharp Snaffles Got His Capital and Wife.”) Simms’s sense of realism did not apply only to “low” characters and their exploits, however, as has often been implied. Simms would modify the nobility, the wisdom, even the courage of his “model characters,” his aristocrats, if the story warranted it. His heroes could learn, could fail, could grow; and his villains were often surprisingly complex, capable of unexpected decency and courageous deeds.
Underlying all of Simms’s romances was a strong awareness of history, of what had actually happened at the time and place about which he wrote. Simms felt free to bend fact to the demands of art, but not to misrepresent the essential truth of the situation. The facts of history, he said, standing by themselves, carried little weight, but the artist—the creative writer—by giving shape to the facts, could give them life and meaning. Thus, it is the writer who is the true historian, and it was as an “artist-historian” that Simms wrote most of his romances.
As all commentators on Simms like to point out (and as Simms himself was aware), he usually wrote too rapidly and carelessly. He simply produced too much for the good of his own reputation. His faults are often glaring, but they are usually the result of haste and little or no revision. Simms could write with clarity and precision, but he could also sacrifice both for blood and thunder. Simms was a storyteller, and his books, for all their length, keep a steady pace. When he turned his hand to psychological interpretations of characters, when he tried to “analyze the heart,” he often did so with the concomitant loss of energy and drive. In his best works, however, he was able to combine complexity of character with a compelling story.
Revolutionary War novels
Simms wrote eight romances dealing with the Revolutionary War in the South, and as a group they represent his best work. The novels cover the period from 1775, when the first open warfare began, to 1783, when the British abandoned Charleston and the soldiers returned home to a new and difficult way of life. The internal chronology of the novels does not correspond to the sequence of their composition. Joscelyn: A Tale of the Revolution, which was meant to be the “opening scene” in Simms’s “grand drama” of the South’s seven-year war of Revolution, was one of the very last works he wrote, and the only one of the eight never to appear in book form during his lifetime. It appears as volume 16 of The Centennial Edition of the Writings of William Gilmore Simms. Joscelyn is set around the Georgia-South Carolina border and describes the early conflicts between those who joined in the growing freedom movement and those who remained loyal to the crown. It also shows that people on both sides of the issue could be motivated by cruelty as well as courage, by selfishness as well as honor.
The Partisan, Mellichampe, and Katharine Walton
Simms conceived of the three novels The Partisan, Mellichampe, and Katharine Walton as a trilogy, with developing characters and overlapping plots, although each was also meant to stand as an independent work. These books cover the events of 1780, following the fall of Charleston to the British. The Partisan is a big, sprawling book that Simms later described as a “ground-plan,” a setting of the stage for the works to come. It introduces numerous characters, both historical—Francis Marion, Lord Cornwallis, Sir Banastre Tarleton, Horatio Gates, Baron de Kalb—and fictional—Major Robert Singleton, Colonel Richard Walton and daughter Katharine, Lieutenant Porgy—who return in later works in the series. The Partisan’s story lines include the development of Marion’s guerrilla forces in the swamps of South Carolina, the growth of love between Singleton and Katharine Walton, and the agony of Colonel Walton’s decision to align himself with the rebel cause. The novel closes with a detailed description and analysis of the Battle of Camden (August, 1780), wherein Gates and the Southern Continental Army were soundly defeated by Cornwallis.
Mellichampe is set in the fall of 1780. It put less emphasis on the large historical picture and was more clearly intended as a work of fiction, although here again the facts of the war are not forgotten. In...
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