Forgotten Giant: Restoring Simms

"Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside." Simms stands, leaning against the chair, center left.

“Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside.” Simms is seated at the left end of the table, shown in full profile.
(Christian Schussele, Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1864)

Meet a Southern man of letters, William Gilmore Simms, through his life’s work of literature—much of it now available in the form of free, digital editions thanks to the Simms Intitiatives at the University of South Carolina. A well-known editor, critic, poet and historian of Southern life and culture in his day, Simms (1806-1870) occupies a unique position in early American literature, and (re)introducing him to modern readers has presented new challenges for scholars. The Junto asked the Initiatives’ Todd Hagstette, Simms Curator, to talk about creating a digital portrait of  the author, and why Simms’s work belongs on the syllabus.

JUNTO: William Gilmore Simms’s literary output is extensive, and the Initiatives’ website is an interesting new model for broadening his modern readership, especially since it can be hard to find his books in print. How did you create the digital editions?

HAGSTETTE: It all started with a commitment from the University of South Carolina Libraries and some very generous funding from the Watson-Brown Foundation. In 2010, we began to establish the standards for our metadata description of texts and for the digital specs of the page images. The extensive field sets we wished to populate with research data coupled with the variety of Simms’s canon led to our from-the-ground-up development of a database to accommodate our needs; this database is the backbone of the project.All of our page images are scanned into print-quality size; this is not only to make them as useful as possible to the online researcher, but also to double as content for our print-on-demand edition of Simms’s works, which serve as classroom texts for teaching the author. Our small-format scanning work is produced on Book Edge scanners, and for large-format materials we use a Zeutschel 14000 A0 scanner, which, when it was purchased in 2010 for this project, was the only one of its kind in North America. We OCR (optical character recognition) all our print materials, so everything is full-text searchable. To date we have over 100 volumes of material mounted and ready to use on our website.

JUNTO: In curating the site, how did you shape the narrative and aesthetics? What challenges did you face in supplying content and historical context? What kind of audience did you have in mind, and how have readers responded to it?

HAGSTETTE: From the beginning of the project, our main goal has been about access. This is the curatorial principle that shaped the narrative of the collection. Simms was a very important figure in nineteenth-century literary history, yet few people today are familiar with his work and ideas. One of the major factors inhibiting his increased study is a lack of access. Only a handful of his books have been in print at any given time, and other than his letters, not much of his manuscript material is available outside of the USC campus. The Simms Initiatives website is designed to remedy that scarcity. When we are finished, every significant edition of every one of Simms’s separately-published titles and a large and important segment of his manuscript materials will be freely available online for researchers.

One of the challenges with displaying this density of largely-unknown material was in structuring the metadata and presentation of the works to minimize the learning curve for uninitiated researchers (which, at some level, includes all of us, given the size and complexity of the author’s oeuvre). We set up many categories of organization for the works in the collection. These included geographical, generic, socio-cultural, temporal, etc. links between texts. We also crafted support materials to help contextualize the books historically, including a new author biography, timelines of Simms’s life and subjects, and a comprehensive bibliography of the author’s past study.

We also planned the site to be a collaborative workspace for Simms scholars and enthusiasts. We have the capability of capturing more text data than we populate in our initial processing of a work. It is our hope that interested academics will help to fill out the site. Response from both Simms novices and experts has been encouraging so far. Analytics of the site indicate that more new visitors are logging in all the time, and that these visitors are spending longer and viewing more pages than is typical for a resource of this kind. We hope The Junto’s readers will visit us soon.

JUNTO: Can you say a little bit about how you researched and selected the site’s main themes?

HAGSTETTE:  We are very fortunate in Simms studies to have a number of useful resources at our disposal, despite the author’s relative obscurity. This is because, while Simms is little studied by most scholars, he also has drawn a small cadre of very active and enthusiastic scholars who have taken great steps in moving his study forward. This is also what makes Simms an excellent research subject–and a rare one in academia, at that. The field is wide open in many ways, with the potential to add significantly to the knowledge without having to resort to remote outposts of his career, minutia, or ill-fitting theoretical approaches. At the same time, there exists a wealth of well-researched and useful support material from which to base inquiries.

Such support materials includes two major biographies, one in the late 19th century by William P. Trent and the other 100 years later by contemporary scholar John C. Guilds. There have also been a number of essay collections and special-topics journal issues in the late twentieth century that help to better define major segments of Simms’s thought. These have primarily been the work of members of the William Gilmore Simms Society, a small but active community of academics, fans, and Simms descendants who, for 20 years, have been dedicated to promoting Simms studies.

Perhaps the most significant contribution to Simms studies, and the basis for much of the Simms Initiatives’ thematic decision-making, is the 6-volume collection of the author’s letters. The first 5 of these massive volumes were published sequentially throughout the 1950s and were edited largely by the author’s granddaughter. They were exhaustively researched and annotated and, as such, provide an invaluable resource for the development of our site. The sixth volume was a 1980s publication that featured letters discovered since the production of the first volumes. The Simms Initiatives was pleased to update this last volume once again last year, publishing an updated edition through the University of South Carolina Press that added 25% new material to the original publication.

JUNTO: What Simms sources didn’t make the cut online, but are really worth a look for researchers? And how does adding Simms to the syllabus change how we teach early American history?

HAGSTETTE:  Simms was an almost unbelievably prolific writer. Any collection of his work necessarily leaves out more than it includes. The Simms Initiatives collection is planned to include two major bodies of the author’s canon: his complete book publications and his scrapbooks. This leaves as not included his voluminous contributions to periodical publications throughout his career. It has been estimated that Simms wrote on average one poem and one review or editorial for every week of his 40-year career. A wealth of information and understanding is waiting to be uncovered in that body of work. Also, we have only a partial conception of Simms’s many anonymous and pseudonymous works. Perhaps a future undertaking of the project will include these works, but for now they must be explored in other venues.

Though not in the online format, we are taking steps to make some of this body of work accessible. Our William Gilmore Simms Initiatives: Texts and Studies series through University of South Carolina Press will publish four edited collections that bring to print selections from various segments of Simms’s periodical and unpublished writings. Emerging over the next two years these books will feature Simms’s two unfinished novels, a sampling of his reviews and review essays, his newspaper writings, and his orations. These book publications in conjunction with our massive online offerings, we hope, will make it easier to research and teach Simms.

After all, adding Simms to the syllabus deepens and complicates our understanding of history. He was outspoken during the Nullification Crisis; he was an early and vocal member of the Young America movement; he was a major articulator of the proslavery argument, both in his non-fiction and his novels alike; his failed northern lecture tour was one of the series of sequential events that made 1856 a watershed year in our nation’s path to war. He also was one of the most heavily networked individuals in the antebellum American literary scene, mentoring fellow writers, working with a host of publishers in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, etc., and contributing as writer, reviewer, and editor to many of the country’s periodicals. Frankly, if Simms is not added to the syllabus, the syllabus is incomplete.

JUNTO: What digital initiatives are next for the Simms Initiatives? Can you offer some thoughts on how the digital humanities are changing the way we practice American history?

HAGSTETTE: The most pressing next step in our project is the digitizing of Simms’s scrapbooks. These books are incredibly dense repositories of the author’s published and unpublished works, manuscript pages, research materials, and other items that interested Simms at various points in his life. The scrapbooks offer an unparalleled glimpse into the author’s fascinations and ambitions. They are the best source for attributing anonymous and pseudonymous works to Simms. Overall, they will be a massive manuscript addition to the site. We are excited about mounting these works for their intrinsic academic value, but also because for years and years, access to them was highly restricted. Now, we are going to make them as widely available as can be imagined. We are also excited by the number of challenges the digitizing of these books will entail. It is going to be no easy task to determine how best to describe these resources in metadata and especially how to structure the user experience of reading them in the web environment. This is to say nothing of the challenge of making them usefully searchable. Making these decisions will involve some heavy considerations into the very nature of our project and Digital Humanities in general.

The short answer to your second question is that we do not really know how Digital Humanities is changing academic study. That is all being worked out and considered right now, in universities all across the country. The Simms Initiatives is thrilled to be participating in seeking answers. One thing that is sure is that the way we practice humanities studies is changing in the face of the digital future. It is becoming more expansive, inclusive, and considerate. We are able to structure inquiry and organize evidence in ways that would have been heretofore impractical, or even impossible. It is an exciting time to be a scholar, and a providential time to wade into the study of William Gilmore Simms.

3 comments on “Forgotten Giant: Restoring Simms

  1. Benjamin Park says:

    Fantastic. Thanks for this helpful dialogue!

  2. Matt Karp says:

    I’d recently stumbled on the Simms digital archive on my own, but this is really helpful context for the project. He’s a hugely important guy in the universe of antebellum southern political, intellectual, and cultural life, so I’m thrilled to see so much of his work opened up to the web — and with useful supporting materials, too. (When my stray googlings led me to this lucid explanation of the contested authorship of an 1856 pamphlet, it was a historian’s godsend: http://simms.library.sc.edu/view_item.php?item=101496&tab=overview).

    Thanks again to Sara and Todd Hagstette for making this available.

  3. Wonderful! i can’t wait to read more of Simms’ work online. Several of his stories center around my ggg-grandfather, Jim Fisher and gg-uncle, John Green (who was not half Choctaw as Simms wrote, but part Cherokee.)

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