Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Simms and the American Apocalypse: 'Woodcraft' and 'The Cassique of Kiawah' Chart a Course

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Simms and the American Apocalypse: 'Woodcraft' and 'The Cassique of Kiawah' Chart a Course

Article excerpt

Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!

--D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (173)

She is a rare abolitionist among antebellum Southern women writers. EDEN Southworth (1819-1899), of Washington, DC, and Virginia, for the first and only time in their fictions says something loudly and clearly and urgently to Americans about immediate possibilities of regional, even of national, disaster in her romance of 1849, Retribution; or, The Vale of Shadows. A Tale of Passion. The issue addressed is servile insurrection. Mary Virginia Terhune (1831-1922), of Virginia and then of New Jersey, also brings herself to address this issue, but only much later in Marion Harland's Autobiography. The Story of a Long Life (1910): "I cannot recollect when the whisper of the possibility of 'Insurrection' (we needed not specify, of what kind) did not send a sick chill to my heart [...] It would be idle to say that we were not, from time to time, aware that a volcano slumbered fitfully beneath us" (190, 195). Terhune, whose pseudonym was Marion Harland, writes in recollection; Southworth writes on the spot, recalling through one of her characters a slave insurrection on Santo Domingo, or Haiti, in the late eighteenth century. The horror happened to French colonials back then, but the message is for slave-holding Americans and the nation of Southworth's time:

   The Island of Santo Domingo, near the sea-coast. Deep, dark
   night--storm. thunder, and lightning--and the dashing of the wild
   sea against the coast--and the roar of the cataracts, and the
   howling of the wind. A burning homestead, smoke, flames,
   falling roofs, glowing beams, and blazing rafters hurled through
   the air before the furious blast, and hundreds of dark demons
   leaping, capering, and exulting in frantic orgies through the
   scene. These were the sights. The reverberations of the
   thunder--the roaring of the sea--the noise of the cataracts--the
   howls and shrieks of the wind--the groans of the wounded and
   dying--the screams of women and children, and the triumphant
   shouts of the blacks. These were the sounds. (98)

And John William DeForest (1826-1906), a Union officer and occasional novelist of Connecticut, played out the nightmare directly for his fellow Americans in Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), He describes a ruined and abandoned plantation house on the Mississippi River some miles above New Orleans, "plain wooden" with a "spacious veranda," the whole resting on "props of brick-work, leaving room underneath for the free circulation of air, dogs, pigs and pickaninnies." But then

   [...] the field-hands, who had hid in the swamps to avoid being
   carried to Texas [by the Confederates], came upon the house like
   locusts of destruction, broke down its doors, shattered its
   windows, plundered it from parlor to garret, drank themselves
   drunk on the venerable treasure of the wine closet, and diverted
   themselves with soiling the carpets, breaking the chairs, ripping
   up the sofas, and defacing the family portraits. Some gentle
   sentiment, perhaps a feeble love for the departed young "missus,"
   perhaps the passion of their race for music, had deterred them
   from injuring the piano, which was almost the only unharmed
   piece of furniture in the once handsome parlor. (252-53)

William Gilmore Simms does something similar in his best work of fiction, Woodcraft (1852). In this novel of post-revolutionary America in the South, Simms's description of the fictitious war-hero Captain Porgy's plantation at Glen-Eberley chills, at first reading, with a sense of terrifying recognition in an author's totally unaware foreshadowing of further regional disaster. Recalling DeForest, a circle of apocalyptic imagery closes.

Of course, when writing of domestic and economic disaster at Glen-Eberley, Simms did not dream of the volcanic finale that, thirteen years later, would befall his own Woodlands Plantation, or to his whole Southern region as the result of another revolution and civil war. …

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