Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Gender and Secession in Simms's Katharine Walton

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Gender and Secession in Simms's Katharine Walton

Article excerpt

Unlike some previous studies that have minimized the political implications of Simms's fiction, Charles S. Watson's From Nationalism to Secessionism: The Changing Fiction of William Gilmore Simms traces Simms's political ideas as reflected in his literary writings. In his analysis of Katharine Walton in a chapter titled "Militant Sectionalism," Watson examines important parallels between British-occupied Charleston and the 1850 sectional debates and argues that when read in the context of the Compromise of 1850, Katharine Walton "emerges as an attack on those who stoop to pusillanimous compromise and a tribute to those who do not" (90). Such a reading raises important questions about the serial publication of Simms's novel in 1850 in Godey's Lady's Book, which, unlike Simms, took a subdued but decidedly pro-Union stance to sectional strife. Focusing on the tensions between Simms's "southron" and the magazine's pro-Union positions, I argue here that Simms's treatment of women helped mask that tension and, moreover, that his treatment of women's roles suggests a contradiction within his own understanding of the sectional crisis.

Simms's position on secession is well documented in both his own writings and in scholarship, especially in Jon L. Wakelyn's The Politics of a Literary Man. Although Simms had supported the Union during the Nullification controversy in the 1830s, he repeatedly expressed his anti-Northern sentiments and his strong support for Southern secession during the sectional crisis of the 1850s. As early as February 1849, Simms described the North as "the maggot in the brain of the Elk feeding on his vitals, yet destroying his benefactor" (Letters 2:475). By early the next year Simms declared that separation from the North was "a now inevitable necessity.... Any compromise now ... must originate in cowardice and a mean spirit of evasion on the part of the South,--and in a spirit of fraud and deliberately purposed wrong on that of the North." By July, Simms insisted: "It must be clear enough to every Southron & man of sense, that there is no living with a people so utterly hostile and reckless as those of the North" (Letters 3: 8, 54).

Katharine Walton was composed and published during this sectional crisis. Though it is unclear precisely when he began work on the novel, Simms reported having sent seven chapters to Louis Godey, publisher of the Lady's Book, by November 1849. Publication in the Lady's Book began in February, and by March Simms had sent a total of twenty chapters to Godey. On September 11, 1850, Simms described the novel as "finished" (Letters 2: 570; 3: 23, 60). Serial publication in the Lady's Book continued through December 1850.

During the same time period Katharine Walton was composed and published and Simms himself grew increasingly confident of the wisdom of Southern secession, Sarah J. Hale, editor of the Lady's Book, was responding to the sectional crisis in a very different way. Hale, whose father had fought in the American Revolution, had long been an adamant supporter of the Union, and though the magazine boasted that it never commented on party politics, Hale did use her editorials in the 1850s to urge preservation of the Union. Hale's best known editorial campaign in this regard is her effort to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Believing that a shared holiday could avert impending war, Hale offered this plea to readers in 1859: "If every State should join in union thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees peace, prosperity, progress, and perpetuity to our great Republic" (Lady's Book, Nov. 1859,466). Though Hale's most explicit pleas for national union occur just prior to the Civil War, similar sentiments appear much earlier. During the serialization of Katharine Walton, Hale reprinted in her editorial pages the final stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Building of the Ship. …

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