The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VII. Fiction II

§ 14. The Partisan Series

His third novel having met with popular success, Simms turned to the Revolution and published The Partisan (1835), designed as the first volume of a trilogy which should celebrate these valorous times. He later wavered in his scheme, and, though he finally called Mellichampe (1836) and Katherine Walton (1851) the other members of his trilogy, he grouped round them four more novels that have obvious marks of kinship. The Partisan traces events from the fall of Charleston to Gates’s defeat at Camden; the action of Mellichampe, which is nearly parallel to that of Katherine Walton, the proper sequel of The Partisan, takes place in the interval between Camden and the coming of Greene; The Scout, originally called The Kinsmen (1841), illustrates the period of Greene’s first triumphs; The Sword and the Distaff (1852), later known as Woodcraft, furnishes a kind of comic afterpiece for the series. Simms subsequently returned to the body of his theme and produced The Forayers (1853) and its sequel Eutaw (1856) to do honour to the American successes of the year 1781.

Of these The Scout is perhaps the poorest, because of the large admixture of Simms’s cardinal vice, horrible melodrama; Woodcraft is on many grounds the best, by reason of its rather close-knit plot and the high spirits with which it tells of the exploits and courtships, after the war, of Captain Porgy, the best comic character in the whole range of the older American romance. But neither of these works is quite representative of the series; neither has quite the dignity which, lacking in his sensational tales of the border, Simms always imparted to his work when he was most under the spell of the Carolina tradition. That always warmed him; indeed at times he seems drunk with history. He had a tendency to overload his tales with solid blocks of fact derived from his wide researches, forgetting, in his passionate antiquarianism, his own belief that “the chief value of history consists in its proper employment for the purposes of art,” or, rather, too much thrilled by bare events to see that they needed to be coloured into fiction if they were to fit his narrative. Simms never took his art too lightly. He held that the “modern Romance is the substitute which the people of the present day offer for the ancient epic.” In this sense, the seven novels are his epic of the Revolution. Marion, the Agamemnon of these wars, had already become a kind of legend, thanks to the popular memory and the fantastic ardour of Weems, but it remained for Simms to show a whole society engaged in the task which Marion did best. Simms’s defect was that he relied too much upon one plot for all his tales, a partisan and a loyalist contending for the hand of the same girl, and that he repeated certain stock scenes and personages again and again. His great virtue was that he handled the actual warfare not only with interest and power but that he managed to multiply episodes with huge fecundity. He described, in a surge of rhetoric, his favourite material:

  • Partisan warfare, itself, is that irregular and desultory sort of life, which is unavoidably suggestive of the deeds and feelings of chivalry—such as gave the peculiar character, and much of the charm, to the history of the middle ages. The sudden onslaught—the retreat as sudden—the midnight tramp—the moonlight bivouack—the swift surprise, the desperate defence—the cruel slaughter and the headlong flight—and, amid the fierce and bitter warfare, always, like a sweet star shining above the gloom, the faithful love, the constant prayer, the devoted homage and fond allegiance of the maiden heart!
  • The passage is almost a generalized epitome of his Revolutionary romances. It also betrays the fact that by “epic” Simms meant not Homer but Froissart. If he is more bloody, he is also more sentimental than Cooper. His women, though Nelly Floyd in Eutaw is strikingly pathetic and mysterious, and Matiwan in The Yemassee is nearly as tragic as romance can make her, are almost all fragile and colourless things, not because Southern women were, but because pseudo-chivalry prescribed. His comedy is successful only, and there not always, in the words and deeds of the gourmand Porgy. Simms is a master in the description of landscapes, from the sterile wastes of Georgia to the luxuriant swamps in which the partisans found a refuge; but he lays little emphasis on the poetry or philosophy of “nature.”