An Unsung Literary Legacy: William Gilmore Simms's African-American Characters

By Perkins, Laura Ganus | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

An Unsung Literary Legacy: William Gilmore Simms's African-American Characters


Perkins, Laura Ganus, Studies in the Literary Imagination


William Gilmore Simms has often been accused of being completely romantic in his view of the South. As John Welsh explains, "In literary criticism, certainly, the most representative antebellum man of letters, William Gilmore Simms, has been long held up as a classic example of Southern self-delusion. Simms, so the theory goes, ruined his art through blind self devotion to Southern imperialistic dreams and the plantation-gentleman ideal" ("William" 201). This theory, Welsh asserts, began with the publication of William Peterfield Trent's biography of Simms, and Trent's opinions on Simms were widely accepted until John Caldwell Guilds refuted them in Long Years of Neglect and later in Simms: A Literary Life. Though Simms has not generally been considered a multiculturalist, he created a diversity of characters, including American Indians, characters of French and Spanish origin, and a number of prominent female heroines. Especially significant are his varied characterizations of numerous African Americans. Although some of Simms's African-American characterizations do support the idea that Simms's prejudices and pro-slavery politics undermined his ability to create fully rounded and realistic characters, several of Simms's characterizations of African Americans seem to contradict his professed beliefs in their essential inferiority, the myriad benefits of slavery, or both. Though these latter characterizations still reflect some of Simms's prejudices, they are a testament to his ability to analyze an individual in spite of race and anticipate the multi-dimensional African-American characters in twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature. Furthermore, they suggest that Simms's desire to defend life in the Old South was complicated by both his knowledge of some of slavery's boundless problems and his personal connections with African Americans.

To fully examine Simms's wide range of African-American characters, one must consider his understanding of the connection between slavery and noblesse oblige. Simms's ownership of slaves was not problematic for him because he believed that the African-American race was inferior and in need of guidance. He speaks of the relationship he sees between African Americans and whites in an 1844 article, "The Broken Arrow: An Authentic Passage from Unwritten American History":

    A comprehensive view of the relations between any two races in
actual
   contact, suggests the religious duty of the superior to take the
inferior
   under its guardianship,--to protect it from injustice, from cruelty
and
   spoliation,--to teach, to guide, and to restrain it;--but, at all
events,
   to do for it that which seems best for the preservation of peace and
good
   will between the parties, and for the protection of the moral and
   intellectual, as well as the social progress of the minor and
inferior
   race. (116-17) 

So Simms theorized that slavery could be a benevolent institution, a way of fulfilling his perceived obligation to African Americans. In "The Mind of William Gilmore Simms: His Social and Political Thought," John Welsh asserts that one of Simms's chief arguments for defending slavery was that "the system stopped [Africans'] wandering habits ... forcing them to permanence, a condition in which they could develop" (300). Slavery, Simms thought, was beneficial for Africans as it saved them from a nomadic and unfulfilling existence. Simms understood social and religious development to be contingent upon a people having a permanent home and believed that African Americans were natural-born wanderers who would establish a permanent location only when forced. He argued that African Americans under slavery would become established in the social and religious customs of their enslavers, thereby becoming ready for freedom and ending the necessity for slavery. But until that point, Simms wanted to reform slavery in the South.

In his article "Slavery in America, Being a Brief Review of Miss Martineau on That Subject," Simms vigorously defends slavery but also admits to problems within the system. …

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