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The Sword and the Distaff, Simms, William Gilmore

The Sword and the Distaff, William Gilmore Simms

William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870) was a leading literary figure in the pre-Civil War South for the scores of novels, collections of verse, and histories of his native South Carolina that he produced. Much of his work has been relegated to the forgotten corners of nineteenth-century American literature, but his 1853 novel, The Sword and the Distaff, remains the best-known work among several written in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) landmark novel of slavery and its evils, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Simms was born in 1806 in Charleston, where his Irish-born father had settled and married a woman from Virginia. The elder Simms was a merchant, but his business failed and Simms's mother died when he was still an infant. When his father left South Carolina for what was then the southwestern American frontier, Mississippi, to serve as a volunteer soldier with Andrew Jackson's (1767–1845) army, Simms stayed in Charleston with his grandmother. After he completed his schooling, he worked for a druggist for a time, but then began to study law. He was admitted to the bar in 1827, a year after his marriage, but his first book of verse, Lyrical and Other Poems and Early Lays, was published that same year and launched his career as a writer.

For the next few years Simms continued to write verse and short fiction while serving as editor of the Charleston City Gazette, of which he was also part owner. In 1832, the paper failed, and his wife died. He headed north, spending time in New York City and later New Haven, Connecticut, where he finished one of his most acclaimed works, the crime novel Martin Faber. In 1835, his fictional story of a little-known 1715 Indian war in the Carolinas, The Yemassee, appeared. In Charleston again by 1836, he married the daughter of a plantation owner, and lived at the main house, called Woodlands, for the next twenty-five years. His novels sold well, and even won high praise from mystery writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). In the 1840s Simms began writing history tomes and biographies of wellknown figures from the South, including History of South Carolina, which became a standard text for a generation of students. He also served in the state House of Representatives during this period.

The Sword and the Distaff appeared in 1853, just a few months after Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 best seller, Uncle Tom's Cabin. His novel was foremost among an onslaught of literary responses from pro-slavery writers who objected to Stowe's portrayal of slavery as barbaric and demeaning. Simms's tale is set in the 1780s, when a Revolutionary War captain, Porgy, returns to his South Carolina property but struggles to regain his financial footing as a rice farmer. Featured prominently in the tale is his slave, Tom, and their relationship is characterized by mutual respect and loyalty not unlike that shared between Porgy and his war comrades, who have pledged to help him restore his property. The novel's villains are British officers whose attempt to steal several other slaves in the area drives the narrative forward. Historian Renee Dye notes the following in an issue of Studies in the Novel:

Although set in the post-Revolutionary period, [Simms's tale] clearly speaks to the virulent sectional conflict of the 1850s. Forced to defend their 'peculiar institution' against attacks dictated by both political and ideological concerns, Southerners increasingly came to define their socio-economic system against the Northern tradition of liberal democracy. While Northern abolitionists made individual political freedom the cornerstone of their argumentative attacks against slavery, Southerners emphasized the primacy of social relations, of personal human ties (2003, p. 190).

The Sword and the Distaff sold well throughout the South, and was reprinted under a different title, Woodcraft, in 1854. In addition to naming the slave Tom, Simms appears to have written some passages that seem like direct rebuttals to elements found in Uncle Tom's Cabin. His work, along with The Planter's Northern Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz (1800–1856)—a northerner who had moved to the South and also wrote a literary rejoinder to Stowe—are two of the best-known examples among the many that appeared in response to Stowe's book. These works are sometimes classified by the term plantation literature for their refutation of the assertion from Stowe and others that slaves were unhappy in bondage, and that the institution itself relied on cruelty and inhumane treatment in order to remain a stable part of the southern economy. Simms and other writers of the genre instead depicted the slave owner as a benevolent and honorable man who, with his docile and genteel wife, viewed their role as caretaker to their slaves as a noble duty.

Simms produced several other titles in the years before the Civil War (1861–1865) began in his home state, and still visited northern cities regularly. In 1856, he was booked to deliver a series of lectures on the southern way of life, but he was heckled in New York City and then lack of interest forced the tour's cancellation. During the final months of the war, his Woodlands home was destroyed by Union army forces carrying out General William T. Sherman's (1820–1891) scorchedearth policy in which the crops were burned, livestock slain, and homes and businesses destroyed. Simms and his family, which numbered several children, fled to Columbia, but that South Carolina city was famously torched during Sherman's march as well. In the midst of the terror, Simms was fortunate to befriend a Union officer who was a fan of his earlier novels, and the northerner aided the family. Financially ruined in the aftermath of the Confederacy's loss, Simms managed to produce only some short fiction, and though well into his sixties returned to farming and newspaper work as a means to support his family. He died five years after the war's end in Charleston on June 11, 1870.


Dye, Renee. "Narrating Social Theory: William Gilmore Simms's Woodcraft." Studies in the Novel (Summer 2003): 190.

Simms, William Gilmore. The Sword and the Distaff. Philadelphia: Lippincott and Grambo, 1853.

                                            Carol Brennan

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