Introduction

By Brennan, Matthew C. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Introduction


Brennan, Matthew C., Studies in the Literary Imagination


This special issue focuses on William Gilmore Simms (1806-70), an antebellum Southern writer who was one of the most prominent literary figures of his time but who for many complicated reasons has lost his place in the canon. Author of more than 80 books, he especially impressed critics with some of his historical romances such as The Yemassee (1835) and works of poetry such as Atalantis (1832), but he practiced all genres, including biography, history, drama, and criticism. He also published lectures, wrote six volumes of letters, and edited several newspapers and literary journals. He was a true public intellectual. In 1845 while reviewing Simms's short stories, Edgar Allan Poe called him "the best novelist which this country has, upon the whole, produced" (qtd. in Butterworth 64), and in 1849 the influential New York critic Evert Duyckinck praised Simms for having "the poetical faculty in something more than an ordinary degree" (qtd. in Butterworth 77). In discussing Simms's volume of poetry Areytos, Poe also lauded his verse as "natural and forcible" and considered Simms "one of our most original writers" (31, 32). In addition, Nathaniel Hawthorne considered Simms's essays equal "to the best of such productions" and said they "abound in brilliant paragraphs," though Simms lacked "genius" (qtd. in Butterworth 68). After the Civil War, however, Simms fell into the "long years of neglect," which John Caldwell Guilds helped rectify in his edited collection of essays of the same name and in his literary biography, Simms: A Literary Life, the first biography in a hundred years. In the last 15 years, the renaissance in Simms scholarship has continued. Books treating his fiction (Wimsatt, Nakamura, and Watson), poetry (Kibler), history (Busick), politics (Wakelyn), frontier theme (Guilds and Collins), and sympathy for Native Americans (Guilds and Hudson) have further redressed aspects scholars have otherwise overlooked, and the University of Arkansas series has brought back into print much of his fiction as well as his poetics in Poetry and the Practical. Moreover, in 1990 the University of Georgia Press published the first new edition of Simms's poems since the Civil War broke out.

So this issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination, "The World in William Gilmore Simms," aims to continue the reassessment of Simms's achievements by acknowledging and complicating his well-known role as the father of Southern letters, as he's been called, but more importantly by placing his work in the national and international contexts most Americanists have ignored. His diverse work itself encompasses the world of the South and the western frontier as well as colonial and revolutionary American history, as is well known, but Simms's art and thought extend well beyond the South. For instance, he actively worked with other Young Americans to engender a national literature founded on contemporary settings and dialects. He also wrote poetry that engaged contemporary national politics such as the Mexican War and in general drew widely on sources including not only Milton, Shakespeare, Dante, and the British Romantics, but many others as well. In fact, his miscellany Egeria perhaps provides the best glimpse of how his intellect operated as inclusively as Emerson's. In discussing how "the subnational and the transnational come together" in the reading lists of Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wai Chee Dimock notes that Emerson was not just a reader but also a translator who habitually rendered in his journal "bits and pieces of foreign texts" (23, 44); comparably, in Egeria Simms translates or paraphrases numerous foreign authors and texts: Italian poets Redaelli, Missirini, and Machiavelli; poetry from the Arabic, Portuguese, French, and Spanish; Voltaire and Goethe; and Horace, Seneca, and Cicero. His reading represents a confluence far more complex than the standard sources of American literature: tellingly, when stragglers of Sherman's army burned his home at Woodlands, Simms lost a library of 10,000 volumes. …

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