Charlestonian William Gilmore Simms can easily be described not only as the literary father of South Carolina, but also the father of Southern literature in general. Upon his death in 1870, Simms was eulogized as “the most consistent and devoted of the South’s literary sons” by Harper’s Weekly. Aside from Edgar Allan Poe, who characterized Simms as “the best novelist which this country has, on the whole, produced,” he was the most popular Southern writer of his time, and by the 1840s in the genre of American romances, New Yorker James Fenimore Cooper was his only rival in success.
Simms was also a prolific poet, critic, and editor, publishing an average of more than one poem and book review every week for 45 years. In the biographical introduction printed in the University of South Carolina Press editions of his works, David Moltke-Hansen writes, “Simms was convinced that art ennobles or transforms, as well as gives voice to individuals and societies; therefore it must be cultivated assiduously.” Two charming Christmas novellas provide the perfect foray into Simms’ writings for the first time reader as well as a gratifying experience for a more advanced Simmsian student.
The Golden Christmas (1852) is a delightful comedy of manners, full of “punny” humor and the whimsical appeal of a Horatian satire. This plantation romance novella offers a lighthearted variant of the Romeo and Juliet trope, showcasing the fierce cultural rivalry dividing Lowcountry South Carolinians of French Huguenot descent from those of English heritage. While this conflict between the two nationalities, as well as between the older and the younger generations, holds the central focus of the plot, many additional paired contrasts appear throughout the book, including aristocratic traditionalism versus modern progressivism. According to the critical introduction of the latest edition, “Simms also explores bachelorhood versus the married life, the rural versus the urban environments, family ties versus the bonds of friendship, and importantly, the masculine versus the feminine spheres.”
Simms also offers an extensive portraiture of the festive South Carolina plantations' Christmas season in the 1850s, yet the brevity of the text gives it a tight narrative effectiveness. Readers have the pleasure of Christmas shopping on King Street before heading into the country for a wild boar and deer hunt, a formal Christmas ball, and ultimately the “Golden Christmas” of celebrating the 100th Yuletide of the plantation Bulmer Barony.
David Aiken, who rediscovered the story for publication, writes that at the provocation of his publishers to write something more in the line of Charles Dickens, Simms impishly decided to turn the best of England upside down with a Lowcountry twist: “The result was a Christmas story ‘a la Dickens,’ with a double helping of Shakespeare, a dash of Jane Austen, and enough Simmsian humor to suit the taste of almost anyone living in South Carolina.”
Castle Dismal; or, The Bachelor’s Christmas (1844), offers another Christmas novella, similar to its later counterpart in its genre as a Lowcountry plantation romance at Christmas but disparate in its overarching focus as a ghost story. “Bachelor fiction” was a popular genre in the 19th century and demonstrated the mounting uncertainty concerning the position of bachelors in a society focused on domesticity.
This novella hearkens to the Gothic tradition that arose in the late 18th century with the publication of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. With this work, Walpole laid the foundation for the distinctive features that went on to characterize the forthcoming genre, such as the backdrop of a mysterious castle with its labyrinthine architecture, mirroring the claustrophobic futility and despair of its occupants. In contrast to The Golden Christmas, the joy of this holiday romance and ensuing matrimony, as well as the celebration of the season, is overshadowed by the haunting presence of ghosts in the narrator’s chamber every night, reenacting over and over the betrayal and murder of generations past.
Lauded by Poe upon publication as “one of the most original fictions ever penned,” Castle Dismal was one of Simms’ own favorites.
While the late 19th century saw a decline in the popularity of Simms’ works, with only The Yemassee remaining in print from the 1920s to the 1950s, the latter half of the 20th century showed a gradual resurgence of interest in his writings, and in 2014, the University of South Carolina Press completed its initiative to publish a collection of 60 of his works in paperback. In fact, so many titles were never simultaneously in print during Simms’ own lifetime as they are now.