As one who has published on William Gilmore Simms, the Old South’s greatest author, I am periodically asked where one should begin reading his works. This is a good question. Most readers today are not very familiar with Simms. Add to this the fact that he published over eighty books, and it is easy to see why many potential readers might feel overwhelmed. Yet Simms is certainly worth reading, and not simply because he was a significant historical figure. As the great William Faulkner scholar James Meriwether often said, you really can not understand Faulkner or modern Southern literature unless you have read Simms.
Though Simms was an accomplished poet and historian, it is for his fiction that he is best known. Most readers and critics would agree that Simms’s finest novel is Woodcraft, a novel about the close of the American Revolution in South Carolina. In this, as in all his Revolutionary War novels, Simms dealt realistically with the nature of the war and its causes. One can learn much from Woodcraft about how Americans understood that liberty for which they had fought. If that one tickles your fancy, you might read some of his other Revolutionary War novels—he wrote a series of eight. The other highlights of the Revolutionary War novels, in my opinion, are The Partisan and Katherine Walton.
After Woodcraft, I think his best novels are probably The Cassique of Kiawah and The Golden Christmas. The Cassique of Kiawah is a swashbuckling tale of piracy in the colonial South and The Golden Christmas is a short, humorous, romantic tale set during the Christmas season in the years before the Civil War.
If humor is your thing, Paddy McGann and As Good as a Comedy are both fun humorous novels. Of the two, Paddy McGann receives the most attention from critics and scholars. Also, I would not neglect the short story “How Sharp Snaffles got his Capital and his Wife.” Indeed, “Sharp Snaffles” is one of the best American tall tales and I would rank it alongside Woodcraft as some of his finest fiction.
Simms also wrote a series of novels set on the southwest frontier. The novels set in Georgia, Guy Rivers, and Alabama, Richard Hurdis, are both worth a look. He set two novels in Kentucky, Charlemont and Beauchampe. These two are interesting because they tell the story of the so-called Kentucky Tragedy, a scandalous tale of love, murder, and politics that captivated early nineteenth century Americans. In the twentieth century Robert Penn Warren also mined the records of the Kentucky Tragedy for his novel World Enough and Time.
If you are not ready to dive into a novel, you can sample some of Simms’s best short stories in a collection titled The Wigwam and the Cabin. No less a critic than Edgar Allan Poe was a fan of this collection. Or if you prefer non-fiction, the Life of Francis Marion was one of Simms’s best-selling books during his lifetime, and is, in this critic’s view, his finest effort as a historian. The Life of Francis Marion remains an important book for those interested in the life of the Swamp Fox because some of Simms’s primary sources for this biography did not survive the Civil War and the burning of Simms’s home by Sherman’s army. Another significant work of non-fiction is Sack and Destruction of the City of Columbia, S.C., in which Simms tells of Sherman’s burning of Columbia, an event he witnessed first-hand.
Regardless of where one begins their foray into the writings of William Gilmore Simms, many, many pleasant hours of reading await.
For more on Simms, see: “A Sober Desire for History:” William Gilmore Simms as Historian, by Sean Busick. Other books by or about Simms may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.