Poet, historian, novelist, editor. Simms was born on April 17, 1806, in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of the Irish immigrant William Gilmore Simms and Harriet Ann Singleton. His mother died when Simms was an infant. His distraught father moved west, leaving his son to be reared by a grandmother who told him stories of Charleston during the Revolutionary War and the exploits of his ancestors. In 1818 Simms’s father sent a representative to Charleston to bring his son west. The twelve-year-old boy refused his father’s entreaties and chose to remain in Charleston.
Lacking much formal education, Simms was a voracious reader and an acute observer. From his reading and his travel he absorbed history as well as local legends and acquired material for the volumes he would later write. In 1825 he took up the study of law in Charleston. Literature, however, remained his passion, and in that same year he helped found and edit The Album, which characterized itself as “a weekly literary miscellany.” He married Anna Malcolm Giles on October 19, 1826. That same year he was admitted to the bar. The birth of his daughter Anna added to the young family’s joy even as it stretched their meager finances and reduced the time available for literary pursuits. In 1829 Simms became editor of the City Gazette, a Charleston newspaper through which he railed against nullification and John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of state interposition.
In the early 1830s Simms experienced a series of devastating personal setbacks. In 1830 both his father and his grandmother died. His house in Summerville burned to the ground. In February, 1832, his wife succumbed to a lingering illness. Alone but for his four-year-old daughter, Simms resigned his editorship and went north to explore new opportunities. In New York he met James Lawson, a young Scots businessman and occasional poet. Through Lawson, Simms was introduced to a group of young writers and critics and their publishers. For the rest of his life he would engage in a lively correspondence with these new friends, and he would make almost annual visits to New York to renew and deepen their friendships.
Buoyed by the success of his trip, Simms returned to Charleston determined to make a living as a professional writer. During the next three years he published Martin Faber (1833), a ghost story and his first work of fiction; Guy Rivers (1834), the first of his “border tales” set in the Georgia frontier; The Yemassee (1835), a colonial romance based on an Indian uprising in 1715; and The Partisan (1835), the first of his Revolutionary War romances. Published by Harper and Brothers of New York, these works were widely and warmly reviewed and established Simms as one of his country’s leading literary lights.
In 1836 Simms’s life took another propitious turn with his marriage to Chevillette Roach, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy planter. The newlyweds made their home at Woodlands, one of the Roach plantations on the Edisto River near Orangeburg. Simms savored life at Woodlands and the setting it provided for his literary endeavors. Though he spent his summers in Charleston, Woodlands would be his home for the remainder of his life.
Despite the delights of plantation living, Simms felt himself a “man marked for the scourge.” Of the fourteen children borne by Chevillette, only five would live to adulthood. His father-in-law’s poor management of the plantation kept the family’s financial situation precarious and forced on Simms a pace of composition that occasionally affected his health and morale.
Simms believed that “to be national in literature, one must needs be sectional.” Indeed, he continued, “he who shall depict one section faithfully, has made his proper and sufficient contribution to the great work of national illustration.” Though occasionally annoyed by an inaccurately perceived sense of neglect in his home state and prompted at times to consider removing to what he hoped might be a more hospitable literary climate in New York, Simms remained a South Carolinian and devoted his professional life to telling the Palmetto State’s story. His efforts varied widely. He edited numerous literary journals, engaged in a rich and voluminous correspondence, and lectured widely. He wrote stories about the southern frontier, essays on literary and social topics, and reviews of newly published works.
But Simms’s principal contributions to a broader understanding of South Carolina may be found in his poetry, his history, his biographies, and perhaps most notably, his fiction. Simms’s best poetry, such as “Maid of Congaree” and “Dark-Eyed Maid of Edisto,” conveyed the beauty and mystery of South Carolina. After the Civil War he collected and published War Poetry of the South, a valuable document of the Confederate experience. A committed historian, Simms possessed one of the finest private libraries of historical materials in the South. He published a history of South Carolina in 1840 (versions revised by his granddaughter Mary Simms Oliphant would become a staple for schoolchildren in the twentieth century), followed by biographies of Francis Marion and Nathanael Greene. His beloved Woodlands was put to the torch by Union troops in 1865 (though later rebuilt), and his entire library was destroyed. Simms retreated inland, where he witnessed the burning and devastation there, which he later described in Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S.C.
In his fiction Simms was a master of the “romance,” which he likened more to epic poetry. He covered the entire sweep of Carolina history, from the earliest years of French and Spanish settlement (The Lily and the Totem and Vasconselos), through the period of English colonization (The Yemassee), through the Revolution (a “cycle” of seven romances, most notably The Partisan and Woodcraft), up to Simms’s own time, where a distinctive American character began to emerge (Guy Rivers).
Keeping nation and section in balance became increasingly difficult for Simms during the 1850s. Some critics have read Woodcraft, with its view of a coherent, hierarchical plantation society, as a rebuttal to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More certain was Simms’s growing sense of alienation from the North, which came to a climax during a lecture tour in New York in 1856. Speaking on “South Carolina in the Revolution,” he asserted his native state’s contributions to the country’s history and attacked the antislavery movement for its “defamation” of South Carolina. So negative were the reviews of his first lecture that Simms cancelled the remainder of his engagements and returned home. From that point on he became an advocate of southern secession.
Broken by the war and enfeebled by illness, Simms attempted in 1865 to revive his literary career, but the result was undistinguished. He died in Charleston on June 11, 1870, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery. Simms was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1986.
Guilds, John C. Simms: A Literary Life. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
McCardell, John. “William Gilmore Simms and Antebellum Southern Literature.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. Vol. 4. Edited by Jay Parini. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Oliphant, Mary C. Simms, Alfred Taylor Odell, and T. C. Duncan Eaves, eds. The Letters of
William Gilmore Simms. 6 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1952–1982.