Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “William Gilmore Simms” (Text-C), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe­ (1850), 3:272-275


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­ [page 272:]

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WILLIAM GILMORE SIMMS.*

MR. SIMMS, we believe, made his first, or nearly his first, appearance before an American audience with a small volume entitled “Martin Faber,” an amplification of a much shorter fiction. He had some difficulty in getting it published, but the Harpers finally undertook it, and it did credit to their judgment. It was well received both by the public and the more discriminative few, although some of the critics objected that the story was an imitation of “Miserrimus,” a very powerful fiction by the author of “Pickwick Abroad.” The original tale, however — the germ of “Martin Faber” — was written long before the publication of “Miserrimus.” But independently of this fact, there is not the slightest ground for the charge of imitation. The thesis and incidents of the two works are totally dissimilar; — the idea of resemblance arises only from the absolute identity of effect wrought by both.  

“Martin Faber” was succeeded, at short intervals, by a great number and variety of fictions, some brief, but many of the ordinary novel size. Among these we may notice “Guy Rivers,” “The Partisan,” “The Yemassee,” “Mellichampe,” “Beauchampe,” and “Richard Hurdis.” The last two were issued anonymously, the author wishing to ascertain whether the success of his books (which was great) had anything to do with his mere name as the writer of previous works. The result proved that popularity, in Mr. Simms’ case, arose solely from intrinsic merit, for “Beauchampe” and “Richard Hurdis” were the most popular of his fictions, and excited very general attention and curiosity. “Border Beagles” was another of his anonymous novels, published with the same end in view, and, although disfigured by some instances of bad taste, was even more successful than “Richard Hurdis.”

The “bad taste” of the “Border Beagles” was more particularly ­[page 273:] apparent in “The Partisan,” “The Yemassee,” and one or two other of the author’s earlier works, and displayed itself most offensively in a certain fondness for the purely disgusting or repulsive, where the intention was or should have been merely the horrible. The writer evinced a strange propensity for minute details of human and brute suffering, and even indulged at times in more unequivocal obscenities. His English, too, was, in his efforts, exceedingly objectionable — verbose, involute, and not unfrequently ungrammatical. He was especially given to pet words, of which we remember at present only “hug,” “coil,” and the compound “old-time,” and introduced them upon all occasions. Neither was he at this period particularly dexterous in the conduct of his stories. His improvement, however, was rapid at all these points, although, on the two first counts of our indictment, there is still abundant room for improvement. But whatever may have been his early defects, or whatever are his present errors, there can be no doubt that from the very beginning he gave evidence of genius, and that of no common order. His “Martin Faber,” in our opinion, is a more forcible story than its supposed prototype “Miserrimus.” The difference in the American reception of the two is to be referred to the fact (we blush while recording it,) that “Miserrimus” was understood to be the work of an Englishman, and “Martin Faber” was known to be the composition of an American as yet unaccredited in our Republic of Letters. The fiction of Mr. Simms gave indication, we repeat, of genius, and that of no common order. Had he been even a Yankee, this genius would have been rendered immediately manifest to his countrymen, but unhappily (perhaps) he was a southerner, and united the southern pride — the southern dislike to the making of bargains — with the southern supineness and general want of tact in all matters relating to the making of money. His book, therefore, depended entirely upon its own intrinsic value and resources, but with these it made its way in the end. The “intrinsic value” consisted first of a very vigorous imagination in the conception of the story: secondly, in artistic skill manifested in its conduct; thirdly, in general vigor, life, movement — the whole resulting in deep interest on the part of the reader. These high qualities Mr. Simms has carried with ­[page 274:] him in his subsequent books; and they are qualities which, above all others, the fresh and vigorous intellect of America should and does esteem. It may be said, upon the whole, that while there are several of our native writers who excel the author of “Martin Faber” at particular points, there is, nevertheless, not one who surpasses him in the aggregate of the higher excellences of fiction. We confidently expect him to do much for the lighter literature of his country.

The volume now before us has a title which may mislead the reader. “The Wigwam and the Cabin” is merely a generic phrase, intended to designate the subject matter of a series of short tales, most of which have first seen the light in the Annuals. “The material employed,” says the author, “will be found to illustrate in large degree, the border history of the south. I can speak with confidence of the general truthfulness of its treatment. The life of the planter, the squatter, the Indian, the negro, the bold and hardy pioneer, and the vigorous yeoman — these are the subjects. In their delineation I have mostly drawn from living portraits, and, in frequent instances, from actual scenes and circumstances within the memories of men.”

All the tales in this collection have merit, and the first has merit of a very peculiar kind. “Grayling, or Murder will Out,” is the title. The story was well received in England, but on this fact no opinion can be safely based. “The Athenæum,” we believe, or some other of the London weekly critical journals, having its attention called (no doubt through personal influence) to Carey & Hart’s beautiful annual “The Gift,” found it convenient, in the course of its notice, to speak at length of some one particular article, and “Murder Will Out” probably arrested the attention of the sub-editor who was employed in so trivial a task as the patting on the head an American book — arrested his attention first from its title, (murder being a taking theme with a cockney,) and secondly, from its details of southern forest scenery. Large quotations were made, as a matter of course, and very ample commendation bestowed — the whole criticism proving nothing, in our opinion, but that the critic had not read a single syllable of the story. The critique, however, had ­[page 275:] at least the good effect of calling American attention to the fact that an American might possibly do a decent thing, (provided the possibility were first admitted by the British sub-editors,) and the result was first, that many persons read, and secondly, that all persons admired the “excellent story in ‘The Gift’ that had actually been called ‘readable’ by one of the English newspapers.”

Now had “Murder Will Out” been a much worse story than was ever written by Professor Ingraham, still, under the circumstances, we patriotic and independent Americans would have declared it inimitable; but, by some species of odd accident, it happened to deserve all that the British sub-sub had condescended to say of it, on the strength of a guess as to what it was all about. It is really an admirable tale, nobly conceived and skilfully carried into execution — the best ghost-story ever written by an American — for we presume that this is the ultimate extent of commendation to which we, as an humble American, dare go.

The other stories of the volume do credit to the author’s abilities, and display their peculiarities in a strong light, but there is no one of them so good as “Murder Will Out.”


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 272:]

­ *  Wiley & Putnam’s Library of American Books. No. IV. The Wigwam and the Cabin. By William Gilmore Simms. First Series.


Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - Works, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - William Gilmore Simms (Text-C)