William Gilmore Simms
Every Melville fan has a basic idea of the arc of his career and the critical reception of his work. It goes something like this: Melville achieved early fame with his first book, Typee (1846), after which he entered upon a slow, steady, life-long decline into obscurity. By the time of his death, he was barely a footnote even in the minds of professional critics. His greatest work, Moby-Dick, was little appreciated when it was published and for some 70 years thereafter. But then, in the late 1910s, Moby-Dick was rediscovered and finally began to be recognized as the masterwork it is. The low point of Melville's literary standing can easily be exaggerated, however. This struck me recently when I was reading an old biography of the South Carolina novelist, poet, playwright, controversialist, and mad Secessionist William Gilmore Simms (1806-1870). The biography, by William P. Trent (an English professor at Columbia), was published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1892 -- the year after Melville's death. In a work of that vintage, I never expected to come across a reference to Melville. But there it was, in Trent's closing evaluation of Simms's output. Trent asks (at pg. 329) whether Edgar Allan Poe was right "when he ranked Simms above the herd of American romancers, just after [James Fenimore] Cooper and [Charles] Brockden Brown." In Trent's opinion, Poe was right:
With regard to romancers like Dr. [Robert Montgomery] Bird, [John Pendleton] Kennedy, and [James K.] Paulding, to say nothing of writers like Miss [Catherine] Sedgwick or Dr. [William Starbuck] Mayo or Melville, Poe would appear to have stated Simms's position correctly. Both with regard to quantity as well as quality of work [Simms] is their superior. His style at its best is not inferior to theirs, and with none of them is it safe to make much question of style. He was more frequently slipshod than they, but that is all that can be said in their favor. In imaginative vigor, in power of description, in the faculty of giving movement to his stories, he leaves them behind. He strikes one as being a born writer, a professional; their works read like those of amateurs.When I first read this passage, I thought Trent couldn't possibly mean our Melville. Who spared a thought for Melville in 1892? But the book's index confirms that, yes, he means Herman Melville. And I'll take Melville's amateurism over Simms's professionalism any day.