"Foolish Talk 'Bout Freedom": Simms's Vision of America in the Yemassee

By King, Vincent | Studies in the Novel, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

"Foolish Talk 'Bout Freedom": Simms's Vision of America in the Yemassee


King, Vincent, Studies in the Novel


Comparisons are frequently made among Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1820), James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1825), and William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee (1835). (1) These three works suggest the movement of the romance from Great Britain to America and, within the United States, from the North to the South. The Yemassee is generally regarded as the least effective of the three, perhaps because the plot lines of Ivanhoe and The Last of the Mohicans move quickly from adventure to adventure and do not overburden their protagonists with courtship or civic responsibilities. The Yemassee, on the other hand, recounts Lord Craven's very verbal courtship of Bess Mathews and details his efforts to persuade the English settlement that an Indian attack is imminent. It also features characters like Parson Mathews, Hugh Grayson, and the insufferable doctor Constantine Maximilian who often delay heroic adventures with windy speeches. Although its opening and closing chapters are as gripping (and as violent) as anything in either Scott or Cooper, The Yemassee, judged purely as an adventure tale, does fall short of its predecessors. But Simms, while learning much from Scott and Cooper, was not interested in becoming the American Scott or extending the mythos that Cooper created. (2)

Instead, The Yemassee is Simms's attempt to domesticate American fiction. Cooper is rightly credited by R. W. B. Lewis with popularizing one of our basic literary paradigms: a man of action who escapes from the trivialities of domestic life by fleeing into the forest. Yet Simms rewrites this paradigm. The Yemassee reenacts and justifies the establishment of the South's peculiar institution, although it does so by showing the chaos that ensues when people of color fail to take their rightful place in the social hierarchy. In Ivanhoe and The Last of the Mohicans, social order is achieved through racial exclusion. Ivanhoe, who is Norman, can marry the Saxon Rowena because she is Christian; yet he cannot marry Rebecca, whom he finds more desirable, because she is Jewish. Likewise, Cooper will not allow Cora, who is only partially white, to mix her blood with the Uncas. Furthermore, at the end of Ivanhoe Rebecca and her family leave England, and at the end of Cooper's novel he kills off both Uncas and Cora. Scott's exclusion of Jews, and Cooper's exclusion of Native- and African-Americans imply that these "alien tribes"--regardless of their virtues--can never be wedded with white Christians into a harmonious social unit. While Scott and Cooper must expel their "alien tribes," Simms finds a place for blacks within American society. (3) It is, of course, an unacceptable place, but it is interesting that Simms uses the romance not to exclude or extirpate America's most alien tribe (African-Americans) but to include it in what he believed was a moral and practical social arrangement. And if Simms's novel focuses on the near extermination of the Yemassee, it does so primarily to validate the strict social hierarchy of the plantation South. Unlike Cooper or Robert Montgomery Bird, Simms is not really interested in Indians at all; they simply serve as a reminder, I believe, of what will happen to African-Americans if they fail to accept their status as slaves.

The Yemassee suggests that if America is to avoid the horrible bloodletting that characterized the displacement of the American Indian (which Cooper. Simms, and Robert Montgomery Bird all record), then blacks must accept their role as slaves to whites, for it is slaver)' that secures both their own and the larger community's welfare. Similar attitudes toward slavery, can be found in works such as John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832) and Beverly Tucker's The Partisan Leader (1836), but in addition to articulating the moral and social necessity of slavery, The Yemassee offers all alternate vision of life in America, a vision not based on freedom, either for whites or blacks, but upon a complex social hierarchy. …

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