January 29, 2013

William Gilmore Simms: no mother's smile

William Gilmore Simms was three months shy of his second birthday when his mother, Harriet Singleton Simms, died in childbirth on January 29, 1808. The young Simms had lost his older brother shortly before. His father (and namesake) was immensely depressed and, it is said, his hair turned completely white within a week. Calling his home "a place of tombs," he moved to Tennessee then Mississippi, leaving his son (the only surviving child) with his maternal grandmother Jane Gates in Charleston, South Carolina. Father was seldom heard from.

As one of his earliest biographers noted, William Gilmore Simms grew up "motherless and almost fatherless," but he doted on his grandmother, who returned his warm affection and was known as a great storyteller. Attempts at a public school education failed; in his adulthood, Simms reflected that he was an example of the "worthlessness" of Charleston schools at the time: "They taught me little or nothing. The teachers were generally worthless in morals, and as ignorant as worthless." Frequent illness kept him from attending class often anyway and, instead, he turned to reading and self-education.

As a teenager, however, he learned of an inheritance from his mother's estate, which he quickly put towards the purchase of a political newspaper. It soon failed. He married young, but his wife died shortly into the marriage. He visited his father in Mississippi, and the elder Simms told the younger he would never be successful in South Carolina.

Throughout it all, William Gilmore Simms was writing as early as 8 years old. At one point, he traveled to Hingham, Massachusetts, where he completed his long, ambitious poem Atalantis; its publication was his first major literary success. He became one of the most prolific writers of the South, publishing poetry, novels, history, and editing anthologies after the Civil War. Looking back on his early years in a letter to Rufus Griswold in 1841, Simms wrote: "Of myself, in this time, the history is no pleasant one to me." His sonnet "Childhood":

That season which all other men regret,
     And strive, with boyish longing, to recall,
Which love permits not memory to forget,
     And fancy still restores in dreams of all
That boyhood worshipp'd, or believed, or knew,—
Brings no sweet images to me—was true,
Only in cold and cloud, in lonely days
     And gloomy fancies—in defrauded claims,
     Defeated hopes, denied, denying aims;—
Cheer'd by no promise—lighted by no rays,
Warm'd by no smile—no mother's smile,—that smile,
Of all, best suited sorrow to beguil,
And strengthen hope, and, by unmark'd degrees,
Encourage to their birth high purposes.

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