In early American frontier novels, the Indian was inevitably characterized in one of two ways: either as a noble savage, a natural primitive untainted by civilization’s corrupting influences, or, more commonly, as a savage barbarian who took pleasure in cruelty and violence toward innocent white settlers. Even America’s most famous author of historical romances, James Fenimore Cooper, divided his Indians into absolutely good and bad types and developed his novels accordingly. Perhaps only William Gilmore Simms in The Yemassee succeeded in creating believable, human Indians with mixed qualities, natures, and potentials; that is the primary reason The Yemassee, in spite of severe artistic flaws, must be acknowledged as one of the best nineteenth century frontier novels.
Through the first one-third of the book, the action is seen primarily from the Indian viewpoint. Simms carefully describes the Yemassee tribal members as they plan and attempt to execute an uprising against the white settlers. Their motives spring not from innate hostility or from cruelty but from a realization that the powers and needs of the white settlers make the conflict—and their own ultimate defeat—inevitable. Simms thus imports to the Yemassee a kind of doomed, almost tragic, grandeur.
It is in his depiction of the intimate lives of the Yemassee that Simms is most impressive. Unlike Cooper, Simms describes the natives in their own environment and...
(The entire section is 578 words.)