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The Southern Literary Journal 34.2 (2002) 1-13

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Experiments in Realism:
Doubling in Simms's The Cassique of Kiawah

Kevin Collins

"Nobody invented realism; it came."

—William Dean Howells, "European Masters: Armando Palacio Valdés"

The critical debate regarding whether William Gilmore Simms is primarily a romanticist or a realist rages across generations and is ably summarized by John Caldwell Guilds in his biography, Simms:A Literary Life. With ample quotations from Simms to bolster arguments made by both sides, Guilds presents the views of William Peterfield Trent, "who believed that Simms's best work followed the romantic traditions of Scott and Cooper" (338-339), and Vernon L. Parrington "who insisted that Simms was at his best . . . [when] depicting life as it really was, not as it should be" (339). While Guilds concludes that "the crux is that Simms the writer defies classification" (340), the fact is that critics will continue in their attempts to classify him, and that these attempts will likely always say more about the critics and their proclivities than they will about Simms and his.

A particular chronological aspect of the realist/romanticist dichotomy, though, is demonstrable: Simms relied far more heavily on romantic convention early in his career that he did later on. Nearly all of his novel-length fiction from the 1830s and the early 1840s uses then-common techniques that would be castigated a quarter century after Simms's death by Howells, James, and the other prophets of literary realism: the establishment of conflict by means of unrealistic contrasts between wholly-noble [End Page 1] heroes and wholly-base villains, the use of extended and often intrusive and pedantic asides in which the narrator abandons his tale to make philosophical or historical points, and the glorification of romantic sensibility that can be exemplified by the gradual deterioration and death by heartbreak of a character. Through the late 1840s and the 1850s, Simms came, with mixed results, to rely upon these conventions less and less. By the time of the publication of Woodcraft (1853), Porgy, the Simmsian hero, was spotted with notable (and comical) vices; still present philosophical digressions were mostly taken out of the mouth of the narrator and placed, less intrusively, into dialogue; and the widow Eveleigh, the novel's heroine, was presented—quite intentionally, it seems—as too pragmatic and tough-minded to be prone to the swoons and heart sicknesses that dogged many of her romantic female forebears in Simms and elsewhere.

In The Cassique of Kiawah (1859), the last novel published in book form during his life, Simms makes an even more thorough break with these tired—or at least tiring—romantic conventions. First, Harry Calvert, arguably the novel's hero, is not just flawed: he has a dark side so prominent that it takes even readers familiar with Simms's romances hundreds of pages to determine whether or not he is indeed the hero. Second, while philosophical asides are still important to The Cassique of Kiawah, almost none are made by the narrator and very few by characters; instead, the most important are suggested by Simms and actually take place only in the minds of his more active and astute readers. Third, while a character dies of a broken heart in a manner that may be parodic of that romantic cliché, her suffering and death do not save her virtue, spare her loved ones a horrible fate, or even teach a valuable lesson to a morally redeemable character. In short, there is no sign of the "dark victory" or transcendent truth that so often seems to accompany a lingering and tragic death in romantic fiction.

A significant factor in the near-total break with these conventions that Simms achieves in The Cassique of Kiawah is his use of doubling, or presenting two characters who fill the same role in some way. Doubling obviates some of Simms's habitual romantic techniques, and it takes the place of others; more importantly, though, the technique involves the readers more actively in the telling of the story, and...


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