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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870)

[7245] The International Magazine of Literature, Art and Science, William Gilmore Simms (1852), courtesy of the Making of America Project, Cornell University Library.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, and remaining near his birthplace throughout his life, Simms was well-known as the author of romances such as The Yemassee (1835), The Lily and the Totem (1850), and The Forayers (1855). Some of the raw material for these works no doubt came from Simms’s father, who was a soldier of fortune, wandering the South for years (leaving Simms in the care of a grandmother), eventually growing rich, and collecting stories and observations. Simms’s novels represent the history of the American South and are influenced by Simms’s knowledge of and affection for the region, including his respect for its landscape, institutions, and social structures. Perhaps his view of his homeland is best embodied in one of his protagonists (in Voltmeier [1869]), who at one point cries out, “I have the strength to endure, I have endured!” Capturing a vision of a defiant and exotic South, Simms’s novels are frequently macabre, displaying characters living in harsh but strangely glamorous conditions.

Simms was politically active, helped develop the proslavery argument (he believed firmly that humans were part of a great chain of being, with whites in a superior position to blacks), and submitted elaborate battle plans to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Like Charles Brockden Brown, he pursued literature rather than the law, with which he had flirted in his early adulthood. A prolific author, he wrote poetry, plays, histories of the South, novellas, biographies, magazine essays, medleys, and literary criticism. In an attempt to support his impoverished family late in life, he worked feverishly at various writing projects, eventually destroying his own health.

Teaching Tips

  • Have students sketch out images of various natural environments with an eye toward moving the emotions of their classmates in particular directions. How do their classmates respond to an open prairie, the ocean, a forest? Now have them sketch (or use the images of) a swamp, and evaluate their responses. Stress that the swamp is often “in-between”: both threatening and concealing, both beyond civilization and a final sign of civilized resistance to tyranny.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why is the swamp mysterious and dangerous in the poem “The Edge of the Swamp”? How does the swamp connect to the moral or message of the poem?
  2. Comprehension: In what ways are the swamps in The Forayers symbolically different from the swamp in “The Edge of the Swamp”? In what ways are they similar?
  3. Context: Consider this passage from The Forayers describing a path through a swamp: “The path grows sinuous and would be lost, but for certain marks upon the branches of the trees under which we are required to move. You would not see these marks. No one could see them, were they not shown, or decipher their mystic runes, were they not explored.” How does this discussion of knowledge (of how a traveler might or might not be able to read the signs of passage through the swamp) relate to the many other examples of characters knowing, not knowing, or wrongly knowing that we have seen in this unit? Compare this swamp with the images in the Core Context “Swamps, Dismal and Otherwise.” Which of the images does it most resemble? To what effect?

Selected Archive Items

[2742] Anonymous, The Old Plantation (c. 1790-1800), 
courtesy of © Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA. 
Slaves dancing and playing music on a plantation, possibly in South Carolina. Writers such as William Gilmore Simms believed that slavery was justified by God.

[4308] Alfred Rudolph Waud, Pictures of the South–Jefferson Davis’s Mansion in Mississippi–Negro Quarters on Jefferson Davis’s Plantation (1866), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62- 116582].
These sketches show a plantation owned by Davis, president of the Confederate States of America. William Gilmore Simms believed that the discrepancy between the lives of slaves and those of their masters was part of the Great Chain of Being.

[4735] Anonymous, Gloucester, Near Natchez, MS (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62- 58888]. 
A neoclassical plantation house designed as an expression of the good taste and prosperity of the owner.

[7245The International Magazine of Literature, Art and Science, William Gilmore Simms (1852), 
courtesy of the Making of America Project, Cornell University Library. 
Simms, the antebellum South’s most prolific author, was an astute observer of the cultural, social, and intellectual traditions of the region.

[9004] William Gilmore Simms, The Life of Francis Marion (1844), 
courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
Simms was the most prolific southern writer of the antebellum period. This biography tells the story of Brigadier General Francis Marion, nicknamed the Swamp Fox, an American soldier in the Revolutionary War.

[9005] William Gilmore Simms, “The Edge of the Swamp” (c. 1853), 
courtesy of Coastal Carolina University. 
Simms’s meditation on a swamp depicts it as a place of mystery and danger.

[9012] William Gilmore Simms, Introduction and Chapter I from The Forayers; or, Raid of the Dog Days (1855), 
courtesy of Belford, Clarke, Chicago, New York, 1885. 
The sixth in a series of eight novels set in the South during the Revolutionary War, The Forayers describes events leading up to the Battle of Eutaw Springs in the Orangeburg, South Carolina, area.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6