May 13, 2012

Eutaw: some things I knows jest like a book

"Steal not this book, my worthy friend,
For fear the gallows be your end!"

Thus reads an inscription on a book given to Gustavus Avinger, a character in the novel Eutaw; or The Raid of the Dog Days by William Gilmore Simms, dated on his 12th birthday, May 13, 1771. The 1856 book was a sequel to his successful novel The Forayers published the previous year; it was also the sixth novel (of what became eight) in which Simms celebrated the history of his native South Carolina. The fictional book inscription quoted above is read by a boy named Henry Travis in chapter 21, a captive aboard a vessel, to two men who can't read. He is asked to read the book because its recent owner, referred to as Dick of Tophet, says he wants to hear what's in the book, "and jest see what sort of stuff it is that makes a harrystocrat better than a common man."

The book was treasured by the aristocratic woman who gave the book to Dick. Gustavus, the original owner, was killed at age 19. The symbolism in the novel is that all people are burdened in life and seek to overcome it; Dick does not realize the book is Pilgrim's Progress.

Eutaw fictionalizes the 1781 battle of Eutaw Springs — a battle which convinced the British Army to leave South Carolina in the final throes of the American Revolution. Some have argued that Simms was actually connecting the Revolution to the ongoing crisis in the South, particularly suggesting a need to cultivate culture and education. Even Simms was a victim of the unusual striation of Southern society; as he was not of an aristocratic family, his writings were more popular in the North than in his home state for a time. As Dick of Tophet notes:

"Them harrystocrats keep all the books to themselves; but we'll see! I reckon books ain't hard to l'arn, efter all; for, you sees, a poor leetle brat of a boy, knee-high to a young turkey — why, he kin l'arn to read, and spell, and write; and I don't see what's to bender a grown man from book-l'arning, when he knows so much more than a boy. It ought to be more easy to him...
I ain't sich a bloody fool as to kick against l'arning, with the idee that I knows everything a'ready. Some things I knows jest like a book, and nobody kin teach me: but thyar's a hundred other things, I reckon, that I knows nothing about, no more than a blind old millhorse."

*The University of Arkansas Press has republished Eutaw and several other works by Simms in recent years, edited by Dr. David W. Newton.

1 comment:

  1. I am going to have the inscription brailled, recorded, and reproduced in large print and put on every single one of the books from my library. The Fed doesn't allow us to charge overdue or lost fees; you can guess how reliable patrons are about returning material.