Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Narrating Social Theory: William Gilmore Simms's Woodcraft

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Narrating Social Theory: William Gilmore Simms's Woodcraft

Article excerpt

Many critics have, for decades, seen Simms as stymied by his culture, so that they interpret the quality of the author's literature as having declined as his sectional partisanship grew. The foremost Southern literary critics of the twentieth century, Louis D. Rubin and Lewis P. Simpson, who are in so many ways at loggerheads in their interpretations of the Old South, nevertheless concur that antebellum Southern writers somehow missed the boat that would have charted their course to the literary greatness enjoyed by Hawthorne and Melville. According to Rubin, Southerners generally failed to develop an "intensive imaginative scrutiny of the individual on the land as opposed to the individual as citizens" (Rubin 50). The plantation--the central symbol of antebellum Southern culture--involved both nature and slavery as essential ingredients, and therefore foreclosed any kind of "sustained dialectic within the literary imagination" (Rubin 51). Somewhat more complexly, Simpson argues that when the Southern imagination sought "to make a covenant between the literary mind and chattel slavery, to make slavery the condition of the independent mind" (Simpson, Dispossessed 32-33), it automatically alienated itself from the "New England [...] pastoral reaction to modernity [which] became an integral expression of the crisis of alienation and thus a fulfillment of the quest for independence of mind" (39).

Antebellum Southern writers generally did not cultivate the character of the alienated, Romantic artist-creator who prefers the solitude of nature to the society of the many. What they did cultivate were fictional representations of characters who can come into a full realization of their beings within, not apart from, the confines of a social order which allots them a particular niche according to their race, class, and gender. From this vantage point of social order and social relations, Simms's mid-century novels are of a piece with his first novels of the 1830s. He broadened the scope of his novels to include the urban settings of novels of manners; his facility with dialect became greater: his characterizations of upper-class characters became less wooden: he depicted characters from a greater variety of social origins; and he extended the use of backwoods humor in his novels. (1)

Novelists were certainly not alone in their attempts to imagine and articulate for their region an ideal social order. A complex set of political, economic, and social circumstances conspired to produce in the Old South a mentality distinctive for its attention to, and insistence upon, man as an essentially social being.

For instance, Calhoun emphatically declared man to be, first and foremost, a creature of society: "I assume, as an incontestable fact, that man is so constituted as to be a social being. His inclinations and wants, physical and moral, irresistibly impel him to associate with his kind; and he has accordingly, never been found, in any age or country, in any state other than the social" (1-2). Simms, likewise, scoffed at the notion of social contract in his polemical essay The Morals of Slavery (1837): "[M]an was hardly ever, at any period, in what we describe as a state of nature. The artifices of a social condition were woven about him from the earliest periods" (251-52). In Sociology for the South, George Fitzhugh seized upon an organic metaphor to describe man's relation to society: "Man is born a member of society, and does not form society. Nature, as in the cases of bees and ants, has it formed for him. He and society are congenital. Society is the being--he one of the members of that being" (Wish 57).

Did there arise in the Old South a notion of a social whole that differed in kind, not degree, from those which developed in other regions? The most sustained and careful analyses and adaptations of Comte's new science of sociology emerged from a seemingly unlikely section, given its imputed intellectual backwardness: the antebellum South. …

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