Simms's Answer to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Criticism of the South in Woodcraft

Article excerpt

Many critics of William Gilmore Simms rate Woodcraft, his novel about Captain Porgy's return to the plantation after the Revolution, as his best literary achievement. (1) Woodcraft, however, has not been omitted from the common disparagement of Simms for lacking the critical spirit. As V. L. Parrington stated, Simms "could perceive no shortcomings in a society he warmly admired." This view has been most cogently opposed by John R. Welsh in his article, "William Gilmore Simms: Critic of the South," in which he cites much evidence from his writings to show that Simms attacked topics as varied as anti-intellectualism and backward farming practices in the South over an extended period of time. He does not, nevertheless, include Woodcraft in his survey. In a recent dissertation, "Social Criticism in the Revolutionary Romances of William Gilmore Simms," Daniel Joseph Sullivan, Jr., discusses Simms's criticism of the aristocracy in the Revolutionary romances, but finds it lacking in Woodcraft. William R. Taylor, on the other hand, writes perceptively that a pessimistic tone hovers over Woodcraft from beginning to end and that Simms's critical observations in his letters about the contemporary planter found embodiment in Porgy. (2)

In arguing that Woodcraft (1852) was Simms's refutation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851), J. V. Ridgely cites the author's crucial remark in a letter to James H. Hammond, governor of South Carolina, that his novel was "probably as good an answer to Mrs. Stowe as has been published." (3) He states that in Woodcraft Simms presented "what he conceived the whole Southern system ideally to be." The modern planter has overcome the faults of the earlier planter and the slave of the present day is as satisfied as his ancestor. The profligate planter reforms and learns that "self-knowledge and responsibility" are necessary to run a successful plantation: "Mrs. Stowe's hedonistic planters of 1852 were anachronisms." In contrast to families of slaves being torn apart in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the reunion of a family occurs in Woodcraft. The refusal by Tom, Porgy's body servant, of freedom expresses the contemporary slave's satisfaction with his life. (4)

Simms's reference to Woodcraft in his letter is very important because it makes unmistakable the novel's application to contemporary times. Ridgely's interpretation, however, is only half right because he views the novel as lacking any criticism of the contemporary South. Woodcraft presents not only a defense of the South but also a penetrating criticism of its failings in the author's own time. In this novel, Simms satirizes and denounces the follies and vices of the planter, the overseer, the nouveau riche and the poor white. Simms's concept of an "answer" to Mrs. Stowe, historical scholarship, and the author's remarks in other writings corroborate this meaning of the novel.

At the time that Simms published Woodcraft in 1852, he considered an "answer" to Northern attacks to include criticism deserved by the South. In 1848, a satire of Charleston's literary fame, Charleston: A Poem, by an anonymous Northern woman, provoked "a reply" from him. He wrote in the preface to his verse satire Charleston, and Her Satirists, "I have been tempted to a reply--somewhat glad of the chance, indeed--to confirm the justice of some of the satirist's points of censure, while dissenting from the propriety of others." He admitted that Charleston had many faults; furthermore the whole state was "open to criticism--vulnerable in its vanities" and it would do "no harm to draw attention to these subjects." In his poem, after defending the city's reputation, he proceeded to take up the region's shortcomings. He derided "our Southern planter" for his faults and the "Hunkers" (the political Establishment of South Carolina) for ignoring youthful worth. (5) On April 23, 1849, Simms wrote Beverley Tucker about his "local satire." He said that "the occasion was a good one for the utterance of some severities which were more legitimately bestowed by a native pen, and more appropriate to the deserts of our people. …