A Holy Craft

The opportunity for a reconsideration, indeed a reconstruction, of literary history is, in the case of William Gilmore Simms’ poetry, both enticing and rewarding.  In Matthew Brennan’s analytical volume, we find the basis, fully elaborated, for reengaging with a body of work, the worth of which has only recently been reevaluated.

William Gilmore Simms (1806-70) has worn three hats as far as his literary repute is concerned.  In working under the first hat, he was too conveniently classified as the Southern Cooper, the author of historical romances about the Revolutionary War and about the frontier, the biographer of Francis Marion, “the Swamp Fox,” and so on.  And in a sense, he was the Southern analogue of James Fenimore Cooper, if Cooper was the American Sir Walter Scott.  All three of these writers were prodigious workers, and they paid a price for it in the quality of their work.  But it is also true that the three were visionaries who encoded in their words a sense of class and character and history that has left its mark on many an imagination.  Scott inspired literate Europe in the early 19th century, and even modern America, with his romantic vision of dialectical history.  Yes, William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell owe much to the tradition of Scott.  Cooper showed us a white man who lived with and like the Indians, the tragedy of America’s settlement, and military adventures...

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