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William Gilmore Simms’ “The Brothers of the Coast” and the Use of the Pirate Figure.

Emmeline Gros


In The Companion to Southern Literature, Marvin Hunt notes that “Southern writers […] seem not to have cared much about pirates,” adding that “although they are the subjects of many well-known British works […], one has to look long and hard to find their trace in books by the most revered Southern writers” (647). “Given the fact that some of the most notorious pirates worked the coastal regions of the Southeast,” it is indeed surprising (and probably highly instructive) “that mainstream Southern fiction registers only faint traces of these brigands of the high seas” (Hunt 648). Not caring about pirates is certainly the symptom of an “hydrophobia” identified by Margaret Cohen in an article published in PMLA. Cohen argues indeed that literary scholars have too readily mapped the land onto the sea and regrets what she calls “a disregard for ocean travel” (657) in an American literature written by those she names “armchair sailors” (657) whose “gazes [remain] fixed on land” (657). For Cohen, this hydrophobia is part of a pervasive 20th Century attitude that the photographer and theorist Allen Sebula has called “forgetting the sea” (658). Of course, the attitude of forgetting the sea is not exclusive to the 20thCentury and some pirates or buccaneers (whatever one might call them) do make their appearance in the pages of Southern fiction. Allusions to pirates can even to be found in traditional best-selling romances like Gone With the Wind. For Margaret Mitchell, pirates and rogues even seem to be emblematic of an anachronistic South. In Gone with the Wind, isn’t Rhett Butler himself qualified of “rogue”? One reads that, “[h]e was dark of face, swarthy as a pirate, and his eyes were as bold and black as any pirate's appraising a galleon to be scuttled or a maiden to be ravished”. Rhett’s grandfather on the Butler side “was a pirate [. . .] made people walk the plank if there was any money to be made that way. At any rate, he made enough money to leave my father quite wealthy. But the family always referred to him carefully as a “sea captain” (950). The mention of the pirate in his family—said to be a sea captain—suggests that the “proper” title of sea captain may be a mask, like the title of gentleman, worn by an intricately subversive character. In a similar manner, through the importance given to the pirate in an American play like The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams seems to have found an insurgent space through which the American theater challenges the models and meanings of an American society marked by the Depression of the 1930s; a world in which the Old South and its Southern comforts (including its Gentleman callers) is anachronistic in this new 20th Century capitalistic society. If the figures of piracy (and the “pirate” drama) can be read as the means to articulate a counterculture (piracy itself was considered as an egalitarian, anti-authoritarian counterculture to the nation), few of these fictional pirates, as Marvin Hunt admits, “resemble the swashbucklers and freebooters of popular legend” (648). The pirate-figure is certainly used as a narrative tool that allows authors to expand/revisit/displace the borders of the South and explore a liminal space in which the fantasy of piracy may indeed seem like a momentary relief from too harsh a reality. Yet, most of these narratives end as tales of redemption and reformation, with tamed or mock-pirates who remain, largely so, non-threatening figures. They eventually abandon a life of banditry and embrace heartily their newly-found “path” as husbands, fathers, justice providers, navy men, etc. These narratives, to use Cohen’s term again, “forget the sea” by offering a containment of the oceanic model of community and belonging. For this conference, I would like to explore William Gilmore Simms’s choice of the pirate-figure in two novels that have—it seems—escaped critical attention. Published only recently, in 2015, Pirates and Devils gathers the last major primary texts of Simms’s prolific career, two incomplete literary manuscripts—the pirate romance "The Brothers of the Coast" and the folk fable "Sir Will O' Wisp". If the reference to pirates in Simms’s manuscripts is certainly highly entertaining for the reader, one could argue that the world of piracy may be used as one of these guises used by Simms to capture, reflect on, or even question events in Southern history that many writers at the time were trying to articulate. For the editors of the volume, Nicholas G. Meriwether and David W. Newton, Simms was, at the time of production, “wrestling with issues he and the defeated South faced in the aftermath of the Civil War economic and social collapse and the triumph of Northern-isms”. One could argue that Simms was reaching the end of his career and was simply (?) trying “to recoup his fortunes […] by writing tales and romances”. For this reason, and “recalling the success with the subject of piracy in The Cassique of Kiawah, [this is why] he wrote over 170 pages of a pirate romance still in manuscript, “The Brothers of the Coast” (Wimsatt 219). One may also argue that Simms had had enough of the Southern gentleman figure and was looking for a more masculine, more aggressive masculine type, one he could only trace in the pirate model. Indeed, at the end of the Civil War (and even before the Civil War, as early as the 1840s as a matter of fact), “the perception of the planter-cavalier [was] not quite up to the demands of a rapidly changing contemporary world” (Cobb). As Cobb remarks, the planter—the Southern hegemonic model of manhood—certainly had “admirable intentions,” yet those “were often neutralized by ineffectual behavior. The planter might be gracious hosts or gifted orators, but for all their talk of honor and pride, they were often of little use in a real crisis” (Away Down South). Such was indeed the view defended by Simms himself. “In disastrous periods,” Simms complained that planters “fold their arms, in stupid despair.” The indecisive planter was, “but a latter-day embodiment of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “whose native hue of resolution/Was sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought” (Simms, qtd. in Cobb). One might also argue that the mode of the romance in “The Brothers of the Coast” and the fantasy entertained by the world of piracy can read as ways to avoid a realistic representation of the deterioration and violence of the newly-defeated South. Yet, and as Gillian Beer notes, since the romance shows the us the ideal, it is implicitly instructive as well as escapist. The romance, as Simms himself made it clear, “should both satisfy those who read merely for fun and instruct those who wish to improve their minds” (Nakamura 107). How instructive are pirates in Simms’s unfinished manuscripts? How can we explain Simms’s resorting to the subversive figures of piracy? Here are some questions that this paper will dig into.   CFP: Given their contribution to the historical development of the coastal south and the Americas in general, pirates show up too infrequently in the present southern literary canon and its criticisms. As the Companion to Southern Literature mentions with some surprise, “southern writers…seem not to have cared much about pirates…[particularly] given the fact that some of the most notorious pirates worked the coastal regions of the Southeast.” This panel seeks to address the critical memory loss of the role of piracy in southern fiction (broadly understood) from all periods. From the cultural echoes of Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” and Joseph Holt Ingraham’s Lafitte: The Pirate of the Gulf and more—and encompassing the cultural role of pirate fiction in triangulating gender, colonial, racial, economic, and nationalistic attitudes with respect to Mexico, the Caribbean, and the entire coastal American South—this panel seeks papers to help start an ongoing treasure hunt for the lost cultural wake of pirate fiction in southern literature. Possible topics include (but are certainly not limited to) the following: •Jean Lafitte in literature and film •the relationship between Bahamanians and Floridians (esp. the Conchs), particularly in fiction •the role of pirate myth in the coastal Carolinas, Georgia, and the Gulf coast states •how pirate fiction represents, navigates, and negotiates the intersectional complexities of slavery •19th-c. dime novels about pirates in and around the South •piracy during the Civil War (e.g., the Confederate privateer ships Jefferson Davis, Savannah, and Petrel) •Rev. Joseph Holt Ingraham’s fiction and the South


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hal-01816160 , version 1 (14-06-2018)


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Emmeline Gros. William Gilmore Simms’ “The Brothers of the Coast” and the Use of the Pirate Figure.. Society for the Study of Southern Literature Biennial Conference (February 2018) “The South By Pirates”, Feb 2018, Austin, Texas, United States. ⟨hal-01816160⟩


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