Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Partisan,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VIII: Literary Criticism - part 01 (1902), 8:143-158


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[Southern Literary Messenger, January, 1836.]

MR. SIMMS has written, heretofore, “Atalantis, a Story of the Sea” — “Martin Faber, the Story of a Criminal” — “Guy Rivers, a Tale of Georgia,” and “The Yemassee, a Romance of Carolina.” Of these works, Martin Faber passed to a second edition — “Guy Rivers,” and “The Yemassee” each to a third. With these evidences before us of our author's long acquaintance with the Muse, we must be pardoned if, in reviewing the volumes now upon our table, we make no allowances whatever on the score of a deficient experience. Mr. Simms either writes very well, or it is high time that he should.

“The Partisan” is inscribed to Richard Yeadon, Jr. Esq. of South Carolina; and the terms in which the compliment is conveyed, while attempting to avoid Scylla, have blundered upon Charybdis. The cant of verbiage is bad enough — but the cant of laconism is equally as bad. Let us transcribe the Dedication.

TO RICHARD YEADON, JR. ESQ. Of South Carolina.

DEAR SIR, My earliest, and, perhaps, most pleasant rambles in the fields of literature, were taken in your company — permit me to remind you of that period by inscribing the present volumes with your name.



July 1, 1835. [page 144:]

This is, indeed, the quintessence of brevity. At all events it is meant to be something better than such things usually are. It aims at point. It affects excessive terseness, excessive appropriateness, and excessive gentility. One might almost picture to the mind's eye the exact air and attitude of the writer as he indited the whole thing. Probably he compressed his lips — possibly he ran his fingers through his hair. Now a letter, generally, we may consider as the substitute for certain oral communications which the writer of the letter would deliver in person were an opportunity afforded. Let us then imagine the author of “The Partisan” presenting a copy of that work to “Richard Yeadon, Jr. Esq. of South Carolina,” and let us, from the indications afforded by the printed Dedication, endeavor to form some idea of the author's demeanor upon an occasion so highly interesting. We may suppose Mr. Yeadon, in South Carolina, at home, and in his study. By and bye with a solemn step, downcast eyes, and impressive earnestness of manner, enters the author of “The Yemassee.” He advances towards Mr. Yeadon, and, without uttering a syllable, takes that gentleman affectionately, but firmly, by the hand. Mr. Y. has his suspicions, as well he may have, but says nothing. Mr. S. commences as above. “Dear Sir,” (here follows a pause, indicated by the comma after the word “Sir” — see Dedication. Mr. Y. very much puzzled what to make of it.) Mr. S. proceeds, “My earliest,” (pause the second, indicated by comma the second,) “and,” (pause the third, in accordance with comma the third,) “perhaps,” (pause the fourth, as shewn by comma the fourth. Mr. Y. exceedingly mystified,) “most pleasant rambles in the fields of literature,” (pause fifth) “were taken in your [page 145:] company” (pause sixth, to agree with the dash after [[“]]company.[[”]]! Mr. Y.'s hair begins to stand on end, and he looks occasionally towards the door,) “permit me to remind you of that period by inscribing the present volumes with your name.” At the conclusion of the sentence, Mr. S. with a smile and a bow of mingled benignity and grace, turns slowly from Mr. Y. and advances to a table in the centre of the room. Pens and ink are there at his service. Drawing from the pocket of his surtout a pacquet carefully done up in silver paper, he unfolds it, and produces the two volumes of “The Partisan.” With ineffable ease, and with an air of exquisite haut ton, he proceeds to inscribe in the title pages of each tome the name of Richard Yeadon, Jr. Esq. The scene, however, is interrupted. Mr. Y. feels it his duty to kick the author of “The Yemassee” down stairs.

Now, in this, all the actual burlesque consists in merely substituting things for words. There are many of our readers who will recognize in this imaginary interview between Mr. Yeadon and Mr. Simms, at least a family likeness to the written Dedication of the latter. This Dedication is, nevertheless, quite as good as one half the antique and lackadaisical courtesies with which we daily see the initial leaves of our best publications disfigured.

“The Partisan,” as we are informed by Mr. Simms in his Advertisement, (Preface?) was originally contemplated as one novel of a series to be devoted to our war of Independence. “With this object,” says the author, “I laid the foundation more broadly and deeply than I should have done, had I purposed merely the single work. Several of the persons employed were destined to be the property of the series — that [page 146:] part of it at least which belonged to the locality. Three of these works were to have been devoted to South Carolina, and to comprise three distinct periods of the war of the Revolution in that State. One, and the first of these, is the story now submitted to the reader. I know not that I shall complete, or even continue the series.” Upon the whole we think that he had better not.

There is very little plot or connexion in the book before us; and Mr. Simms has evidently aimed at neither. Indeed we hardly know what to think of the work at all. Perhaps, with some hesitation, we may call it an historical novel. The narrative begins in South Carolina, during the summer of 1780, and comprises the leading events of the Revolution from the fall of Charleston, to the close of that year. We have the author's own words for it that his object has been principally to give a fair picture of the province — its condition, resources, and prospects — during the struggle between Gates and Cornwallis, and the period immediately subsequent to the close of the campaign in the defeat of the Southern defending army. Mr. S. assures us that the histories of the time have been continually before him in the prosecution of this object, and that, where written records were found wanting, their places have been supplied by local chronicles and tradition. Whether the idea ever entered the mind of Mr. Simms that his very laudable design, as here detailed, might have been better carried into effect by a work of a character purely historical, we, of course, have no opportunity of deciding. To ourselves, every succeeding page of “The Partisan” rendered the supposition more plausible. The interweaving fact with fiction is at all times hazardous, and presupposes [page 147:] on the part of general readers that degree of intimate acquaintance with fact which should never be presupposed. In the present instance, the author has failed, so we think, in confining either his truth or his fable within its legitimate, individual domain. Nor do we at all wonder at his failure in performing what no novelist whatever has hitherto performed.

Some pains have been taken in the preface of “The Partisan,” to bespeak the reader's favorable decision in regard to certain historical facts — or rather in regard to the coloring given them by Mr. Simms. We refer particularly to the conduct of General Gates in South Carolina. We would, generally, prefer reading an author's book, to reading his criticism upon it. But letting this matter pass, we do not think Mr. S. has erred in attributing gross negligence, headstrong obstinacy, and overweening self-conceit to the conqueror at Saratoga. These charges are sustained by the best authorities — by Lee, by Johnson, by Otho Williams, and by all the histories of the day. No apology is needed for stating the truth. In regard to the “propriety of insisting upon the faults and foibles of a man conspicuous in our history,” Mr. Simms should give himself little uneasiness. It is precisely because the man is conspicuous in our history, that we should have no hesitation in condemning his errors.

With the events which are a portion of our chronicles, the novelist has interwoven such fictitious incidents and characters as might enable him to bind up his book in two volumes duodecimo, and call it “The Partisan.” The Partisan himself, and the hero of the novel, is a Major Robert Singleton. His first introduction to the reader is as follows. “It was on a pleasant afternoon in June, that a tall, well-made youth, probably twenty-four [page 148:] or five years of age, rode up to the door of the ‘George,’ (in the village of Dorchester,) and throwing his bridle to a servant, entered the hotel. His person had been observed, and his appearance duly remarked upon, by several persons already assembled in the hall which he now approached. The new comer, indeed, was not one to pass unnoticed. His person was symmetry itself, and the ease with which he managed his steed, and the” — but we spare our readers any farther details in relation to either the tall, well-made youth, or his steed, which latter they may take for granted was quite as tall, and equally well made. We cut the passage short with the less hesitation, inasmuch as a perfect fac-simile of it may be found near the commencement of every fashionable novel since the flood. Singleton is a partisan in the service of Marion, whose disposition, habits, and character are well painted, and well preserved, throughout the Tale. A Mr. Walton is the uncle of Singleton, and has been induced, after the surrender of Charleston (spelt Charlestown) to accept of a British protection, the price of which is neutrality. This course he has been led to adopt, principally on account of his daughter Katharine, who would lose her all in the confiscation of her father's property — a confiscation to be avoided by no other means than those of the protection. Singleton's sister resides with Col. Walton's family, at “The Oaks,” near Dorchester, where the British Col. Proctor is in command. At the instigation of Singleton, who has an eye to the daughter of Col. Walton, that gentleman is induced to tear up the disgraceful protection, and levy a troop, with which he finally reaches the army of Gates. Most of the book is occupied with the ambuscades, bushfighting, and [page 149:] swamp adventures of partisan warfare in South Carolina. These passages are all highly interesting — but as they have little connexion with one another, we must dismiss them en masse. The history of the march of Gates’ army, his fool[[-]]hardiness, and consequent humiliating discomfiture by Cornwallis, are as well told as any details of a like nature can be told, in language exceedingly confused, ill-arranged, and ungrammatical. This defeat hastens the dénouement, or rather the leading incident, of the novel. Col. Walton is made prisoner, and condemned to be hung, as a rebel taken in arms. He is sent to Dorchester for the fulfilment of the sentence. Singleton, urged by his own affection, as well as by the passionate exhortations of his cousin Katharine, determines upon the rescue of his uncle at all hazards. A plot is arranged for this purpose. On the morning appointed for execution, a troop of horse is concealed in some underwood near the scaffold. Bella Humphries, the daughter of an avowed tory, but a whig at heart, is stationed in the belfry of the village church, and her father himself is occupied in arranging materials for setting Dorchester on fire upon a given signal. This signal (the violent ringing of the church bell by Bella) is given at the moment when Col. Walton arrives in a cart at the foot of the gallows. Great confusion ensues among those not in the secret — a confusion heightened no little by the sudden conflagration of the village. During the hubbub the troop concealed in the thicket rush upon the British guard in attendance. The latter are beaten down, and Walton is carried off in triumph by Singleton. The hand of Miss Katharine is, as a matter of course, the reward of the Major's gallantry.

Of the numerous personages who figure in the book, some are really excellent — some horrible. The historical [page 150:] characters are, without exception, well drawn. The portraits of Cornwallis, Gates, and Marion, are vivid realities — those of De Kalb and the Claverhouse-like Tarleton positively unsurpassed by any similar delineations within our knowledge. The fictitious existences in “The Partisan” will not bear examination. Singleton is about as much of a non-entity as most other heroes of our acquaintance. His uncle is no better. Proctor, the British Colonel, is cut out in buckram. Sergeant Hastings, the tory, is badly drawn from a bad model. Young Humphries is a braggadocio — Lance Frampton is an idiot — and Doctor Oakenburg is an ass. Goggle is another miserable addition to the list of those anomalies so swarming in fiction, who are represented as having vicious principles, for no other reason than because they have ugly faces. Of the females we can hardly speak in a more favorable manner. Bella, the innkeeper's daughter is, we suppose, very much like an innkeeper's daughter. Mrs. Blonay, Goggle's mother, is a hag worth hanging. Emily, Singleton's sister, is not what we would wish her. Too much stress is laid upon the interesting features of the consumption which destroys her; and the whole chapter of abrupt sentimentality, in which we are introduced to her sepulchre before having notice of her death, is in the very worst style of times un peu passés. Katharine Walton is somewhat better than either of the ladies above mentioned. In the beginning of the book, however, we are disgusted with that excessive prudishness which will not admit of a lover's hand resting for a moment upon her own — in the conclusion, we are provoked to a smile when she throws herself into the arms of the same lover, without even waiting for his consent. [page 151:]

One personage, a Mr. Porgy, we have not mentioned in his proper place among the dramatis personæ, because we think he deserves a separate paragraph of animadversion. This man is a most insufferable bore; and had we, by accident, opened the book when about to read it for the first time, at any one of his manifold absurdities, we should most probably have thrown aside “The Partisan” in disgust. Porgy is a backwoods imitation of Sir Somebody Guloseton, the epicure, in one of the Pelham novels. He is a very silly compound of gluttony, slang, belly, and balderdash philosophy, never opening his mouth for a single minute at a time, without making us feel miserable all over. The rude and unqualified oaths with which he seasons his language deserve to be seriously reprehended. There is positively neither wit nor humor in an oath of any kind — but the oaths of this Porgy are abominable. Let us see how one or two of them will look in our columns. Page 174, vol. ii — “Then there was no tricking a fellow — persuading him to put his head into a rope without showing him first how d—d strong it was.” Page 169, vol. ii — “Tom, old boy, why d—n it, that fellow's bloodied your nose.” Page 167, vol. ii — “I am a pacific man, and my temper is not ungentle; but to disturb my slumbers which are so necessary to the digestive organs — stop, I say — d—n! — don’t pull so!” Page 164, vol. ii — “Well, Tom, considering how d—d bad those perch were fried, I must confess I enjoyed them.” Page 164, vol. ii — “Such spice is a d—d bad dish for us when lacking cayenne.” Page 163, vol. ii — “Dr. Oakenburg, your d—d hatchet hip is digging into my side.” Page 162, vol. ii — “The summer duck, with its glorious plumage, skims along the same muddy [page 152:] lake, on the edge of which the d—d bodiless crane screams and crouches.” In all these handsome passages Porgy loquitur, and it will be perceived that they are all to be found within a few pages of each other — such attempts to render profanity less despicable by rendering it amusing, should be frowned down indignantly by the public. Of Porgy's philosophy we subjoin a specimen from page 89, vol. ii. “A dinner once lost is never recovered. The stomach loses a day, and regrets are not only idle to recall it, but subtract largely from the appetite the day ensuing. Tears can only fall from a member that lacks teeth; the mouth now is never seen weeping. It is the eye only; and, as it lacks tongue, teeth, and taste alike, by Jupiter, it seems to me that tears should be its proper business.” How Mr. Simms should ever have fallen into the error of imagining such horrible nonsense as that in Italics, to be either witty or wise, is to us a mystery of mysteries. Yet Porgy is evidently a favorite with the author.

Some two or three paragraphs above we made use of these expressions. “The history of the march of Gates’ army, his fool-hardiness, &c. are as well told as any details of a like nature can be told in language exceedingly confused, ill-arranged, and ungrammatical.” Mr. Simms’ English is bad — shockingly bad. This is no mere assertion on our parts — we proceed to prove it. “Guilt,” says our author, (see page 98, vol. i) “must always despair its charm in the presence of the true avenger” — what is the meaning of this sentence? — after much reflection we are unable to determine. At page 115, vol. i, we have these words. “He was under the guidance of an elderly, drinking sort of person — one of the fat, beefy class, [page 153:] whose worship of the belly-god has given an unhappy distension to that ambitious, though most erring member.” By the ‘most erring member’ Mr. S. means to say the belly — but the sentence implies the belly-god. Again, at page 196, vol. i. “It was for the purpose of imparting to Col. Walton the contents of that not yet notorious proclamation of Sir Henry Clinton, with which he demanded the performance of military duty from the persons who had been paroled; and by means of which, on departing from the province, he planted the seeds of that revolting patriotism which finally overthrew his authority.” It is unnecessary to comment on the unauthorized use here, of the word ‘revolting.’ In the very next sentence we see the following. “Colonel Walton received his guests with his accustomed urbanity: he received them alone.” This language implies that Colonel Walton received those particular guests and no others, and should be read with an emphasis on the word ‘them’ — but Mr. Simms’ meaning is very different. He wishes to say that Col. Walton was alone when his guests were ushered into his presence. At page 136, vol. i, the hero, Singleton, concludes a soliloquy with the ungrammatical phrase, “And yet none love her like me!” At page 143, vol. i, we read — “ ‘That need not surprise you, Miss Walton; you remember that ours are British soldiers’ — smiling, and with a bow was the response of the Colonel.” We have no great difficulty here in guessing what Mr. Simms wishes to say — his actual words convey no meaning whatever. The present participle ‘smiling’ has no substantive to keep it company; and the ‘bow,’ as far as regards its syntactical disposition, may be referred with equal plausibility to the Colonel, to Miss Walton, to the British [page 154:] soldiers, or to the author of “The Partisan.” At page 147, vol. i, we are told — “She breathed more freely released from his embrace, and he then gazed upon her with a painful sort of pleasure, her look was so clear, so dazzling, so spiritual, so unnaturally life-like.” The attempt at paradox has here led Mr. Simms into error. The painful sort of pleasure we may suffer to pass; but life is the most natural thing in the world, and to call any object unnaturally life-like is as much a bull proper as to style it artificially natural. At page 148, we hear “that the disease had not yet shown upon her system.” Shown is here used as a neuter verb — shown itself Mr. S. meant to say. We are at a loss, too, to understand what is intended, at page 149, vol. i, by “a look so pure, so bright, so fond, so becoming of heaven, yet so hopeless of earth.” Becoming heaven, not of heaven, we presume should be the phrase — but even thus the sentence is unintelligible. At page 156, vol. i, a countryman “loves war to the knife better than degradation to the chain.” This is a pitiable antithesis. In the first clause, the expression ‘to the knife’ is idiomatic; in the second, the words ‘to the chain’ have a literal meaning. At page 88, vol. i, we read — “The half-military eye would have studiously avoided the ridge,” &c. The epithet “half-military” does not convey the author's meaning. At page 204, vol. i. Mrs. Blonay is represented as striding across the floor “with a rapid movement hostile to the enfeebled appearance of her frame.” Here the forcing “hostile” to mean not in accordance with, is unjustifiable. At page 14, vol. ii, these words occur. “Cheerless quite, bald of home and habitation, they saw nothing throughout the melancholy waste more imposing than the plodding negro.” The [page 155:]cheerless quite” and the “bald of home and habitation” would refer in strict grammatical construction to the pronoun “they” — but the writer means them to agree with “melancholy waste.” At page 224, vol. i, we find the following. “The moon, obscured during the early part of the night, had now sunk westering so far,” &c. At page 194, vol. ii, we are informed that “General Gates deigned no general consultation.” At page 13, vol. ii. “Major Singleton bids the boy Lance Frampton in attendance” — and at page 95, vol. ii, we have the singular phenomenon of “an infant yet unborn adding its prayer to that of its mother for the vengeance to which he has devoted himself” — a sentence which we defy his Satanic Majesty to translate.

Mr. Simms has one or two pet words which he never fails introducing every now and then, with or without an opportunity. One of these is “coil” — another, “hug” — another, and a still greater favorite, is the compound “old-time.” Let us see how many instances of the latter we can discover in looking over the volumes at random. Page 7, vol. i — “And with the revival of many old-time feelings, I strolled through the solemn ruins.” Page 18, vol. i — “The cattle graze along the clustering bricks that distinguish the old-time chimney places.” Page 20, vol. i — “He simply cocked his hat at the old-time customer.” Page 121, vol. i — “The Oaks was one of those old-time residences.” Page 148, vol. i — “I only wish for mommer as we wish for an old-time prospect.” Page 3, vol. ii —

“Unfold — unfold — the day is going fast,

And I would know this old-time history.” [page 156:]

Page 5, vol. ii — “The Carolinian well knows these old-time places.” Page 98, vol. ii — “Look, before we shall have gone too far to return to them, upon these old-time tombs of Dorchester.” Here are eight old-times discovered in a cursory glance over “The Partisan” — we believe there are ten times as many interspersed throughout the work. The coils are equally abundant, and the hugs innumerable.

One or two other faults we are forced to find. The old affectation of beginning a chapter abruptly has been held worthy of adoption by our novelist. He has even thought himself justifiable in imitating this silly practice in its most reprehensible form — we mean the form habitual with Bulwer and D’Israeli, and which not even their undoubted and indubitable genius could render any thing but despicable — that of commencing with an “And,” a “But,” or some other conjunction — thus rendering the initial sentence of the chapter in question, a continuation of the final sentence of the chapter preceding. We have an instance of this folly at page 102, vol. ii, where Chapter XII commences as follows: “But, though we turn aside from the highway to plant or to pluck the flower, we may not linger there idly or long.” Again, at page 50 of the same volume, Chapter VII begins — “And two opposing and mighty principles were at fearful strife in that chamber.” This piece of frippery need only be pointed out to be despised.

Instances of bad taste — villainously bad taste — occur frequently in the book. Of these the most reprehensible are to be found in a love for that mere physique of the horrible which has obtained for some Parisian novelists the title of the “French convulsives.” At page 97, vol. ii, we are entertained with the minutest [page 157:] details of a murder committed by a maniac, Frampton, on the person of Sergeant Hastings. The madman suffocates the soldier by thrusting his head in the mud of a morass — and the yells of the murderer, and the kicks of the sufferer, are dwelt upon by Mr. Simms with that species of delight with which we have seen many a ragged urchin spin a cockchafer upon a needle. At page 120, vol. i, another murder is perpetrated by the same maniac in a manner too shockingly horrible to mention. The victim in this case is a poor tory, one Clough. At page 217, vol. i, the booby Goggle receives a flogging for desertion, and Mr. S. endeavors to interest us in the screeches of the wretch — in the cries of his mother — in the cracking of the whip — in the number of the lashes — in the depth, and length, and color of the wounds. At page 105, vol. ii, our friend Porgy has caught a terrapin, and the author of “The Yemassee” luxuriates in the manner of torturing the poor reptile to death, and more particularly in the writhings and spasms of the head, which he assures us with a smile “will gasp and jerk long after we have done eating the body.”

One or two words more. Each chapter in “The Partisan” is introduced (we suppose in accordance with the good old fashion) by a brief poetical passage. Our author, however, has been wiser than his neighbors in the art of the initial motto. While others have been at the trouble of extracting, from popular works, quotations adapted to the subject-matter of their chapters, he has manufactured his own headings. We find no fault with him for so doing. The manufactured mottos of Mr. Simms are, perhaps, quite as convenient as the extracted mottos of his cotemporaries. All, we think, are abominable. As regards the fact of the [page 158:] manufacture there can be no doubt. None of the verses have we ever met with before — and they are altogether too full of coils, hugs, and old-times, to have any other parent than the author of “The Yemassee.”

In spite, however, of its manifest and manifold blunders and impertinences, “The Partisan” is no ordinary work. Its historical details are replete with interest. The concluding scenes are well drawn. Some passages descriptive of swamp scenery are exquisite. Mr. Simms has evidently the eye of a painter. Perhaps, in sober truth, he would succeed better in sketching a landscape than he has done in writing a novel.





[S:1 - JAH08, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Partisan)