Saturday, March 3, 2007

Marian Sims and Reconstruction in S.C.

In response to a posting yesterday where I noted that I'm working on a conference paper and need to finish it during our spring break, a reader asks what the paper is about.

The paper is for the annual meeting of the Georgia Association of Historians and is titled, rather boringly, "Beyond Surrender: Marian Sims, Francis B. Simkins, and Revisionism in Reconstruction South Carolina."

Marian Sims (1899-1961) was a writer born in Dalton, Georgia. In the mid-1930s, Sims, who had been a school teacher (history and French) and copy writer for an advertising firm, began writing novels and short stories. Much of her fiction dealt ("with notable honesty and intelligence," according to a reviewer in the New York Times) with the lives of middle-class southerners facing such issues as divorce and small-town religious and moral bigotry.

In 1941, Sims turned her hand to historical fiction with Beyond Surrender, a novel of Reconstruction in South Carolina. In the book's acknowledgements, she thanked Francis Butler Simkins, who was the author (with Robert Woody) of one of the first of the so-called "revisionist" histories of Reconstruction (South Carolina during Reconstruction, [1932]).

Earlier historians (and people in general) had looked at Reconstruction as a dismal failure, where vindictive northern Radical Republicans imposed horrible "reforms" on the southern states. This interpretation features scalawags and carpetbaggers, uppity and incompetent blacks, and whites being humiliated and, in general, unfairly imposed upon. William Archibald Dunning and his students (the "Dunning school") at Columbia a century ago turned out a number of studies that "proved" this interpretation. (Perhaps the most popular "history" was Claude Bowers's The Tragic Era [1929]). Think of Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, and you'll understand how widespread this view was.

Historian Francis B. Simkins was no Eric Foner, but his view of Reconstruction was quite different from Dunning's. In Simkins's view, not all Yankees were bad, not all southern whites were good, and the former slaves were treated with a sympathy that even W.E.B. DuBois pronounced "fair."

A reading of the Sims-Simkins correspondence and the two books (Sims's novel and Simkins's history) shows that Sims was heavily influenced by Simkins's work, producing what might well be the first "revisionist" fiction of the Reconstruction era, a much improved version (from a historical standpoint, anyway) of Margaret Mitchell's more famous novel.

Sims has been almost completely ignored by historians, and I think that's a shame, hence the paper.