Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Simms's Bosky Gothic, the "Region of Doubt and Shadow"

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Simms's Bosky Gothic, the "Region of Doubt and Shadow"

Article excerpt

Overall, Simms's Gothicism has too long remained a "region of doubt and shadow," to cite the phrase from Helen Halsey, usually neglected or deplored. Those who have addressed this branch of his work concentrate on his short stories, mainly those of supernatural substance, altogether overlooking his poems and other writings. I hope to offer some measure of just dues to this topic, centering on representative longer works of fiction. Several deserve much higher rankings as American Gothic works than they have been awarded. In Simms's Gothic fiction, European Gothicism meets American humor and Southern folklore to transmute into what I designate "bosky"--that is, frontier--Gothic. (1) I proceed chronologically, from Martin Faber (1832) to Woodcraft (1852). That Simms derived much from Cooper and Scott, and that Scott's fiction, in particular, had strong ties with earlier Gothic novels, ought not to be bypassed in any study of Simms's uses and modifications of such materials. (2) In this study, Simms's fictions will speak, at times at some length, for themselves. Simms's considerable knowledge of German literature, which, of course, included many works in the horrific vein, is well known, and also on record are his interests in Beckford, Walpole, and their Anglo-American descendants in literary Gothicism, among them Poe, whose writings more than once engaged Simms's attention. (3) Therefore, we should not be surprised to find him employing the Gothic in many of his own writings. Prefacing the tales and sketches included in the second edition of Martin Faber (1837), for example, Simms notes straightforwardly the "Teutonic extravagances of many of these," which, he adds, will appeal to many readers, who, as he does, doubtless incline "prodigously to diablerie." For Simms, as for Poe, who likewise commented on the analogy between "Teutonic" and diablerie, such were intimately connected in the minds of many early nineteenth-century readers with what they termed "Germanism." Simms offers another linkage:

   Images from the natural and spiritual world, alike, await my
   bidding, and without describing a circle, filling it with sculls
   and scorpions, making a contract with my blood in a manner most
   horribly German, and invoking his arch majesty the devil, I
   command the creatures of the four elements, and they come when,
   and sometimes before, I call for them. (4)

In Richard Hurdis, William Carrington alludes to a German devil tale while he counsels Richard about the nature of women's feelings. Perhaps acting as a mouthpiece for his creator, in a passage musing about Americans migrating westward, Richard thinks of the travelers' heedlessness of dangers along their routes in terms of German stories of robbers or demons besetting those who enter the Hartz Mountains or the Black Forest. (5)

Fictions such as Guy Rivers, Richard Hurdis, The Scout, Helen Halsey and Woodcraft are products of greater literary maturity, and therefore what they offer in the Gothic vein might repay more than casual attention. "Historical Novels" though these books may be, they can as readily qualify as "Romances." In fact, an early reviewer of The Yemassee argued against distinctions between the two types (along with distinguishing "romance" from the "novel" in general). Certainly, many of Simms's novels offer that element of the "marvellous," as Hawthorne contextualized it in his "Preface" to The House of the Seven Gables, although Simms holds a tighter rein on supernaturalism in novels like those cited above than Hawthorne did in his. (6) I submit that Simms often enhances realism by adapting from Gothicism, an idea that may seem paradoxical, but that is borne out by his practices.

For example, Martin Faber (1832), as has long been known, emulates the Godwin school of gloom and death as attributes of psychological fiction. Simms's first-person narrative method naturally emphasizes criminal Martin's emotions and the confessional nature of his account. …

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