That a tale should live,
While temples perish! That a poet’s song
Should keep its echoes fresh for all the hills
That could not keep their cities! . . .
So wrote William Gilmore Simms in his poem “The Lions of Mycenae” (1870). He was alluding to Aeschylus, Horace, and Homer, but was no doubt also hoping his own words would echo on, even as the “temples” about him—his cherished Woodlands plantation house and its massive library, the city of Columbia, and the nascent Confederacy itself—had all perished in the cataclysm of the American Civil War. Sadly, Simms’ desire for an enduring voice turned out to be a case of wishful thinking. By the beginning of the 20th century, the man who had been not only the “Old South’s foremost public intellectual,” as David S. Shields puts it, but one of the most successful American authors of the antebellum era, had been all but forgotten.
It is perhaps not surprising that Simms’ legacy has not fared well, for his writings and image, on the surface, would seem to have a lot of factors working against them. For one thing, Simms had publicly and forcefully agitated for secession before the war, and had then aligned himself closely with the Confederacy during it. In the wake of all the carnage, few...