William Gilmore Simms: Deviant Paradigms of Southern Womanhood?

By Johanyak, Debra | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview
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William Gilmore Simms: Deviant Paradigms of Southern Womanhood?


Johanyak, Debra, The Mississippi Quarterly


Woman's degradation is in man's idea of his sexual rights.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1860

William Gilmore Simms (1806-1879) LOVED HIS Southern heritage and remained faithful to its beliefs and values through the bitter war that heavily damaged both sides. Overlooked or downplayed by critics for decades, only in the last quarter of the twentieth century has his work been reevaluated for its literary merit.

Like Northern Romantics, Simms employed "the habit of dehumanizing women of the time by investing them with an unrealistic purity, spirituality, and vulnerability."(1) The Romantic South, in proud and self-determined isolation, clung to traditional images of pure womanhood as part of an overall effort to preserve a clear-cut aristocratic hierarchy which placed men at the top of society, followed by women, and finally slaves. It was this system of racial and gender demarcation that Southerners fought to uphold as the country moved toward civil war, and with which Simms identified in his personal quest for identity and status within the political rhetoric of his community.(2)

A traditionalist, Simms created idealized heroes and heroines, and with regard to the "weaker sex" he followed the common path of other romancers, allowing his ladies to project "simultaneously the aura of innocence and of physical allurement."(3) Such character types include Mary Easterby in Richard Hurdis, Janet Berkeley in Mellichampe, and Katharine Walton in The Partisan and its sequel bearing her name.

Although the Dark Lady is found in most major Romantic writing, her character functions both as a symbol and a stereotype in Simms's fiction. What frequently sets Simms's Dark Lady apart is her minority status; often his tragic heroines are Indian, Jewish, or Hispanic. Further, on a socio-economic scale, the Dark Lady is generally indigent. The dark female is found in several of Simms's greatest works, spanning the most productive years of his writing career. Memorable brunettes also provide tragic focal points in selections from The Wigwam and the Cabin, an anthology of short stories based primarily on tall tales, folk yarns, and historical legacies of regions he lived in and visited. The heroines of these tales inherit the qualities of the traditional seductress but also represent entities larger than themselves -- a culture, a race, or a people, for example. Frequently cast in servile roles, this heroine's character suffers in isolation until granted salvation from the dominant society's white patriarchy or until attempts to save or uplift herself result in death.

Simms's adherence to hierarchical values undoubtedly derived in part from his upbringing. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, as the son of a woman from an established and respected family,"(4) he was later raised by his maternal grandmother, whose history and bearing bore a shining image of Southern aristocracy and its "class-ridden culture"(5) For Simms, the dichotomy between domestic "good" women and independent "bad" women was as clear-cut as the social distinction between black and white. Simms believed, as did many others of his time, that the "great first duty of a woman is in her becoming the mother of men."(6)

And yet Simms was a realist, of sorts. In an effort to escape duplication of conventional heroines of his era, he endows most with dual aspects of womanhood, although he never allows the reader to question his position on the status of women in general. His efforts toward equalizing female characters with positive and negative qualities resulted in a curious blend of beauteous and blasphemous characteristics. And so he arranged each woman's flaws according to one of three typical formulas of the period: 1) by emphasizing her weaknesses, making her the villain; 2) by omitting reference to negative qualities, making her the heroine; of 3) by complicating her character with the addition of mitigating traits so that an element of pity is introduced (Goldhurst, p.

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