Realism and Romance in Simms's Midcentury Fiction

By Wimsatt, Mary Ann | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1980 | Go to article overview

Realism and Romance in Simms's Midcentury Fiction

Wimsatt, Mary Ann, The Southern Literary Journal

The intermingled artistic traditions that mark Simms's mature writing spring largely from conditions in his literary milieu. (1) The years in which he wrote (roughly 1825-1870) saw the triumph and then the decline of the historical romance that he favored, which after its heyday from the 1820's through the early 1840's was driven out of fashion by the emerging realistic novel. Simms's work naturally reflects the pressures of these contending literary movements, as critics from his time to ours have sensed. The appearance of both realism and romance in his fiction has been a subject of scholarly commentary from his biographer William P. Trent onward; it is the leading point of Vernon L. Parrington's chapter on Simms in Main Currents, and it is central to the work of Hampton Jarrell, Edd Winfield Parks, and other writers influenced by Parrington's claim that "in taste and temperament Simms was a pronounced realist, but his career took shape from a generation given to every romantic excess." (2)

Partly because of such statements, and also because of the bias of our age toward realism as a literary method, the notion persists in the academic mind that Simms was "good" or "right" when he wrote in the realistic manner and "bad" or "wrong" or "boring" when he used the romance vein. Yet this complex issue, which has never been satisfactorily treated, cannot be resolved so simply; in fact, it cannot be resolved at all unless we are willing to discard our prejudices in favor of realism, examine without blinders the conventions of romance, and assess the assumptions behind both traditions, as these underlie artistic procedures. To accomplish this obviously complicated task, we should draw on the postulates of literary theory in order to study how cultural and literary history affected the development of Simms's mature fiction. We should, in other words, explore modern conceptions of realism and romance as literary modes, fix the particular strains in the realist tradition that Simms fitted into romance structures, note how the South Carolina low country that is the main setting for his books treated in this essay gave him material for work in both forms, and observe how time and his personal fortunes worked some changes in his literary methods. Such an approach, taking due account of his debts to both realism and romance, seems essential if we are to make any real sense of his midcentury fiction and continue with any success the reappraisal of his life and writing now going on.

At the outset, it is necessary to stress that, however much Simms's twentieth-century readers may admire the realistic aspect of his writing, his fundamental bent--at least as his literary structures express it--was toward romance. From the beginning to the end of his career, the romance was his dominant form for long fiction; romance structures and values affect much of his short fiction as well. Because throughout his life he was a professional author catering to the book market, most of his long works employ the conventions of popular romance established by generations of writers as described by modern literary theory. These volumes show a commitment to the ideals of the aristocratic or ruling class, in Simms's case the planting class of the colonial and antebellum South; they express the conflict of those ideals with forces threatening them through a two-sided or dialectic structure revealed most obviously in their love plots, symbolic constructions where comely heroes and heroines representing the ideals battle villains representing the anti-ideals; they resolve this conflict through insistently happy or "wish-fulfillment" endings that dramatize the triumph of ruling-class values as heroes defeat villains and marry heroines; and they employ as a major setting a natural or "green" domain wherein the Southern agrarian system and to some extent the wooded Southern countryside assume a pastoral shape. (3)

Simms, who theorized about romance throughout his life, knew its traditions well through the work of many authors--Malory, Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Maturin, and Scott among others, whom he mentions in letters, criticism, the Yemassee Preface, and miscellaneous writings. …

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