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  • Disability, Reactionary Appropriation, and Strategies of Manipulation in Simms's Woodcraft
  • Taylor Hagood (bio)

One of the most useful things about studying a politically reactionary text such as William Gilmore Simms's Woodcraft: Or, Hawks About the Dovecoat is that doing so can reveal the rhetorical maneuvers used to convey and promote its ideological platform. Scholars have long considered Woodcraft to be an "anti-Tom" novel designed to counteract the powerful depiction of slavery as a social and cultural evil in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.1 What has not been sufficiently analyzed are the narrative and rhetorical strategies Simms employs to defend race-based slavery in the United States. A particularly productive approach to identifying and understanding these strategies is that of disability studies, with its relentless efforts to expose constructs of normality in the context of politics surrounding the human body. What such an approach makes clear is how central corporeality is to the novel's rhetorical, political, and thematic fabric. Specifically, Simms uses disability and abnormality to manipulate the reader into moral conflicts designed to normalize slavery and the white southern aristocracy's values, a maneuvering that has the ultimate effect of appropriating a progressive vision of race and class equality only to employ it in the service of a reactionary aim. [End Page 39]

The specific technique of manipulative maneuvering in the novel mirrors the combat-engagement technique that gives the novel the title by which it is most often remembered (more on its original title, which is very relevant to the topic at hand, later). A large section of the first half of the book presents a detailed account of the techniques of what Simms calls "woodcraft." In chapters ten through eighteen, the evil poor white Bostwick and his criminal companions ambush the widow Eveleigh, her son, and her overseer Fordham on their way home from a trip to Charleston to recover property from the British after the Revolution. When Fordham and young Eveleigh manage to escape Bostwick and his crew, there follows a protracted episode in which the opposing figures position and reposition themselves in the woods in order to gain an advantage. The section is fascinating if tedious, as each participant employs tricks of various kinds to locate the enemy while obfuscating his own position. There are some classics of this kind of deception: at one point, a character puts his hat on a ramrod and lifts it over some bushes to fool the opponent into thinking he is shooting at an actual head. More importantly, the episode is larger than the sum of its parts—it is not only meant to be entertaining but also instructional on multiple levels. Throughout the section Fordham teaches Eveleigh's son the maneuvers of woodcraft (chapter fourteen is actually entitled "Lessons in Woodcraft"). I think it fair to say that Eveleigh is not the only intended pupil: the reader should take instruction from the section too, not just for any possible military situations but also for other settings, not the least of which is the act of reading. Understanding Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin to be a skillfully constructed text that uses sentiment in order to help advance an antislavery platform, Simms seeks to engage readers emotionally in his justification of slavery. In short, the woodcraft section can serve as a treatise on what Simms is doing in his novel, a metaphor for the warfare for public sentiment in which he sees himself and Stowe engaged. Metaphorically, Simms is Fordham, Stowe Bostwick.

In elaborating on Simms's novelistic woodcraftery, it is important to see that the various maneuvers he employs are directed to one end—the normalization of slavery. Presented within Stowe's moral and familial framework slavery emerges as monstrous, so Simms must offer a different moral and familial framework. He sets about devising ways to show slavery as a natural and necessary moral good that sustains family and community in the face of morally reprehensible British and poor white enemies (the latter adversary, interestingly enough, he shares with Stowe). [End Page 40] Central to this normalization process is a complex relational positioning of bodily abnormality that lays out a discourse...