The Metaphysical Federalism of William Gilmore Simms

By Pearce, Colin D. | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Metaphysical Federalism of William Gilmore Simms


Pearce, Colin D., Studies in the Literary Imagination


INTRODUCTION

Jon L. Wakelyn is certainly right in his study of William Gilmore Simms to note that "While Simms followed the nineteenth century's faith in progress and republican government, his history disclosed a certain skepticism about the nature of man." Wakelyn is also right to note that Simms "sharpened his critical skills and slowly developed his own philosophy of history" in the course of writing "reviews of some of the leading works of his time" (115). But for all that Wakelyn ends up delivering a negative verdict on Simms as a historical and political thinker. In his view historians such as William Hickling Prescott were "painstakingly accurate in their work" while for his part Simms "was usually careless and often allowed his imagination to supersede reality." In sum Simms "never clarified his own philosophy of history." Simms "was neither an original political theorist nor a first rate social analyst" (116). (1) Wakelyn is correct that Simms was not an original thinker if by that he meant the author's proneness to drawing inspiration from any number of writers in both the western and American traditions. But Wakelyn has underestimated Simms and his achievements as a political theorist and philosopher of history.

Treating Simms "the poet," John McCardell explains that the influence of Romanticism was to lead intellectuals into the paradoxical situation of seeking to "separate themselves from the coarse, leveling, often violent, and usually disorienting effects of 'progress,'" while, at the same time, seeking "to play a guiding, usually restraining role in managing and directing change" (191). McCardell's Simms seeks "to restore a sort of social equilibrium through the mediating agency of the intellectual, whose acute sense of 'poetry,' the sublime, the transcendent, might balance the dislocating tendencies of modern life" (190).

But McCardell goes too far if he includes Simms with those intellectuals who were guilty of "frustration and seemingly inconsistent behavior" by adopting "the pose and language of the isolated genius alongside a persistent belief that the man of mind had a central social and political function he must serve" (190). It is more true to say that Simms reviewed many of the significant books of his era not so much as an "isolated genius" but as a political scientist.

Of course Simms is every inch the poet. However, if as McCardell argues Simms saw himself as submissive to the Muse, this particular poet nevertheless was also a political scientist. Naturally enough McCardell identifies the poet as an intellectual. But he overlooks a key distinction between the poet and the intellectual in Simms. The poet is a kind of intellectual within the much broader class of intellectuals, and it is these latter who at a somewhat lower level must guide and govern the democratic juggernaut. The intellectuals--lawyers, teachers, doctors, professionals in general--must steer the progressive society away from its worst demagogic propensities. By comparison to the intellectual, the poet in Simms's understanding has a special role that puts him at a distance not only from the broader community but also from the intellectual class itself. His special job is to supply metaphysics to the community or, as McCardell himself says, to give expression of "the profoundest of human philosophies" (191). But from whence does he get this metaphysics or these profound "human philosophies"?

In Southward Ho! Simms presents a discussion onboard ship between an Alabamian and a North Carolinian. The initial question dealt with is why the "simple failure to recognize [the] distinction between state and people" should lead to "the demise of the nation." The answer is that to fail to understand the proper distinction between the state and the people means to fail to understand the proper relationship between metaphysics and politics. From the North Carolinian's point of view, no real or necessary connection exists between metaphysics and politics. …

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