The Legacy of Francis Butler Simkins

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A biographer defined Francis Butler Simkins as “one of the most interesting intellectual forces of his generation.” As a scholar who questioned conventional thinking he “helped lay the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, when these momentous events of the 1950s and 1960s challenged the traditional order in the American South, Simkins discovered much…that he believed should be conserved and [thus] became a spokesman for tradition.”

The Francis Butler Simkins that I knew from 1950 until his death in 1966 was a complex man, who enjoyed nothing more than questioning and offering a fresh look at the past. He delighted in ideas and unusual individuals; only dullness bored him. As a scholar, he stood ahead of most of his contemporaries, not just because of his perceptive views and insights, but because he wrote the kind if history that upset people–Northerners as well as Southerners.

Born in Edgefield, South Carolina, December 14, 1897, Simkins took his undergraduate degree in 1918 from the University of South Carolina, where he studied history with Professor Yates Snowden, and in 1920 received an M.A. and in 1926 a Ph.D from Columbia University. During the next forty years, Simkins became a distinguished historian, teaching briefly as a regular or a visiting professor at a number of schools: Randolph Macon College, the University of North Carolina, Emory University, Louisiana State University, the University of Mississippi, Princeton University, Mississippi State University, the University of Texas and the University of Massachusetts. But he spent most of his long academic career at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia.

A great teacher, whose students called him “Doc,” his technique was simple; he made friends with his students and treated them as a patient father would treat his children. I recall how Doc dealt with my first graduate paper, written in the summer of 1950 at Louisiana State University. After reading what I had written, he invited me to discuss it with him at a campus cafe. He paid for our iced tea with the most crumpled dollar bill I had ever seen, which he finally found, after a lengthy search, deep in one of his pockets. He told me that he liked my paper (its thesis probably appealed to his iconoclastic nature), but he explained—tactfully, to avoid hurting my feelings—that my “effort” needed revision before an editor would consider it for publication. When I expressed fear that I lacked the skill to make a significant improvement in what I had done, Doc offered to become my coauthor. I accepted, and one hot day our collaboration began. Under the shade of a great live oak (neither faculty offices nor the library were air conditioned then), he rewrote our piece; Doc scratched out my awkward and amateurish words, moved sentences about and added colorful phrases. What he did amazed and pleased me. He turned a rough draft into an article. More important to me, he explained why he thought certain words or phrases belonged or did not belong; graciously he asked me—and always got— my approval of each change. It seems to me, looking back, that I learned a good bit about writing that day.

During his career, Doc received many honors: the Dunning Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Fleming Foundation Lectureship, a number of other awards, and election in 1954 as president of the Southern Historical Association, which much later honored him by establishing the Francis Butler Simkins Prize awarded each year for the best first book in Southern history.

An appropriate honor, this first book award, because Doc wrote so ably and sympathetically about the South. His most important works were The Tillman Movement in South Carolina, published in 1928; South Carolina During Reconstruction, published in 1932 and written with Robert H. Woody; Pitchfork Ben Tillman, published in 1944; A History of the South, first published in 1947; and The Everlasting South, published in 1963.

In his early works, when most historians still accepted the traditional view of Reconstruction, Doc became one of the first revisionists. During the 1930s and 1940s, because his work placed blacks at the center of Reconstruction history, progressive liberals claimed him as a hero. But after World War II, when nearly all historians boasted of their liberalism, Doc Simkins became one of the few vocal conservatives in the profession. “His study of Reconstruction in South Carolina…seemed to put him among the enlightened revisionists of the dark period,” wrote his friend and coauthor Robert H. Woody. “But more and more he came to stress the distinctive characteristics of the ‘everlasting South,’ and to question the validity of such that passed for progress in the modern South. His forte was the propounding of ideas rather than the systematic marshalling of facts. He was a stimulating conversationalist, a ready lecturer, and always boldly free to give a reason for the faith that was in him.”

Another academic who knew Simkins considered him “the most informal man” he ever met. Gregarious and overflowing with challenging questions, Doc enjoyed interesting people, but if the conversation lagged, he often dozed. As a friend admitted, Doc could not “endure being bored by an empty mind.” When vice-president of the Southern Historical Association and on stage during the annual banquet, he snoozed through the presidential address. He did the same at the home of his department chairman at Louisiana State University, who inflicted a violin solo upon his guests after dinner. The story of Doc’s sleeping through the chairman’s solo spread across campus delighting faculty and students, who had nicknamed the outraged administrator “the pope” to emphasize his pompous and overbearing ways. But the sleeping incident doubtless speeded Doc’s leaving LSU and returning to Longwood, where he happily reported: “They don’t understand me but they tolerate me.”

Another example of how his informality often upset people occurred just before Doc left LSU. Taking advantage of an open invitation to drop by and discuss books, a graduate student called at Doc’s home one afternoon. Doc and his young son Chip had been taking a nap in the summer heat and humidity that made pre-air conditioned Baton Rouge so uncomfortable. Both came to greet their visitor. Because they had been napping naked, they answered the door without either attire or embarrassment. The startled visitor, suddenly aware that neither Chip nor his father intended to burden themselves with clothing, admonished: “For Heaven’s sake, Doc, go put some clothes on.”

Doc’s dress, as well as his undress, attracted attention. He dressed in a careless, somewhat quaint fashion, but on trips he often wore an old homburg hat. Now, as you know, a homburg used to be stylish, but Doc never gave his hat a fraction of the care and attention it needed. So instead of adding to his appearance, his homburg gave him an outdated and slightly scruffy look.
Nearly daily a dressing difficulty surfaced. Doc had trouble keeping his shirttail in his trousers; usually by mid-morning half or more of it had escaped. After years of patient effort, his wife finally taught him to tuck it into his shorts. Yet even that failed. By afternoon Doc’s shirttail might still be inside his shorts, but by then his trousers had slipped down several inches below the tops of his shorts. Toenails were another problem. Doc never cut them, but because his shoes hurt his feet he always removed his shoes during seminars and propped his feet up on a chair displaying quite unselfconsciously the huge holes his long toenails had cut through his socks.

I am not sure that Doc’s wife Margaret ever accused him of being too informal, but I know that she did call him a number of things. One of her milder charges was that he could wreck a house with only a New York Times and an orange. His habit was to peel and discard pieces of both as he walked through the house. He had a curious habit of playing with a newspaper—that is, tearing off pieces, rolling them up, sticking them in his ear, and then tossing them aside.

One of his former students, after visiting the Simkins family, claimed that Doc rejected the germ theory of disease. It seems that he decided to invite his guests out in the yard and treat them to some homemade ice cream, which he somehow managed to prepare without accident in a primitive freezer. The trouble began when Doc opened the container and began dispensing ice cream to his guests. At that point several neighboring dogs joined the party. As the dogs attempted to get into the ice cream container, Doc continued to serve his guests with a wooden spoon that he also used to beat off the dogs. Soon he got ice cream on the dogs and dog hair on the spoon and in the ice cream. Undaunted, Doc discarded the spoon and, in the words of his horrified guest, “stuck his grubby little hand down in the container and began scooping out and serving ice cream mixed with dog hair.”

I do not question the accuracy of this story; at cocktail parties Doc would eat anything on his plate with his fingers whether it was finger food or not. As one observer noted, Doc’s tastes were catholic. His friends certainly never doubted his appreciation of good food and drink. Eating with Doc could be a memorable experience. On our first visit to New Orleans, he informed me that any good restaurant had checkered tablecloths and male waiters. He also introduced me to lobster, telling me, a country boy from north Louisiana, that it was just a big
Yankee crawfish.

He was generous and so was his wife. During the first week of my graduate career, I was alone in a room used by graduate assistants when Doc opened the door and asked: “Have you eaten?” When I replied no, he invited me to his home for lunch. At the university parking lot, he handed me his car keys, saying, “You drive.” Before doing so, I had to repair a badly bent windshield wiper that had been scraping the windshield rather than wiping it. Doc was no mechanic. Nor had he called ahead to prepare his wife for our coming, and when we arrived at his house, he said: “You wait here.” I had no idea why I should remain in the car while he went inside to eat. I was already beginning to realize that Doc was not just informal; he was down-right eccentric. But soon he emerged from his house, waved to me and announced: “Come on in. Margaret says it’s okay.” The lunch, featuring a delicious homemade soup, was excellent.

Doc loved tasty fare as well as visiting in the grand old Southern style. While single, “Fetch” Simkins, as he was affectionately called, frequently spent months at a time with various prosperous families enjoying their comfortable homes. A number of South Carolinians boasted that “Old Fetch” not only spent the winter with their family, but claimed he wrote a specific book while visiting them. The trouble was that different families claimed him for the same book! He readily availed himself of their openhanded hospitality so frequently and for such long periods of time that some wit claimed Doc’s initials stood not for Francis Butler Simkins but for Free Board Simkins.

Once when Doc was visiting a professor at Princeton University he stayed overnight with my wife and me in New York City. This visit was far from the plantation hospitality he had enjoyed as a young man. We lived in a cramped apartment befitting graduate students. Unfortunately, while using our small bathroom, Doc dropped and broke his false teeth. This upset him tremendously; he dreaded the badgering he feared from his wife upon returning to Princeton with broken teeth. “Margaret thinks I’m a damn fool anyway,” he admitted.
I called a place that promised to repair his teeth within a few hours and off we went on the subway to find it. Assured that he would not have to go back to New Jersey with broken teeth, Doc thoroughly enjoyed our wait to have them fixed. He quickly decided we should lunch at a place that served good German food and beer. Without his teeth, Doc had a few problems with the food, but he compensated by indulging himself with beer.

Doc may have been a sensualist but he was too innocent to be a lady’s man. I recall a story told by his wife, who informed Doc when he came home one afternoon that she had been to visit the doctor. Preoccupied with something else, Doc asked vaguely about Dr. Smith’s health. Margaret informed him that she had not been to see Dr. Smith about his health but her own. Sitting Doc down, she told him she had some important news—she was pregnant. This shocked him so much that Doc stammered a bit before apologetically admitting: “My God, Margaret, I feel partly responsible!”

Because Doc was so kind and unassuming, so hospitable and courteous, everyone who loved him forgave his faults. Knowing that his wife never gave him more than a dollar at a time because he invariably lost whatever money he had with him, we joked about his carelessness and forgetfulness. Graduate students put their theses and dissertations in Doc’s hands with mixed emotions. They appreciated his careful editing and helpful suggestions for improving their work, but they lamented his habit of misplacing and sometimes actually losing some of their pages. They all admitted that Doc took as much care with their manuscripts as he did with his own. But it came to be expected that he would lose several pages of any paper he read. I recall him complaining to me at a history conference that he had misplaced some of the essay he had intended to present and had been compelled to scratch out a replacement in longhand from memory.

Ordinarily Doc wrote at odd hours on an antique typewriter. An early riser, he liked to set up under a shady tree at first light, but when his noisy typing outside annoyed his neighbors, he removed his table and typewriter to the local graveyard, where apparently his hunt and peck typing disturbed not a soul.

What distinguished Doc from so many of his contemporaries was that he refused to truckle to current historical fads; indeed, to use his phrase, he believed that historians ought to “tolerate the South’s past.” Unlike many Southern historians, Simkins was unashamed of being a Southerner; he was proud of his origins and ancestry. This alone, he knew, was reason enough for most Yankees and Yankeefied Southerners to object to his views. Doc wrote about a wide range of Southerners, but concentrated on understanding and justifying historically the plain white people of the South, especially postbellum Southerners and such of their heroes as Benjamin R. (Pitchfork Ben) Tillman of South Carolina.

“I do not attempt to emphasize here the contributions of the South to the history of the United States,” Doc explained in his Southern history textbook. “I propose instead to stress those political and social traits that make the region between the Potomac and the Rio Grande a cultural province conscious of its identity.” To him the changes that occurred over time in the South were not nearly as significant as the persistence of cultural continuity in the region. “The militant nationalism of the Southern people supplemented rather than diminished their provincialism; devotion to state and region went along with devotion to the United States,” Doc observed. “Gloating pride in growing cities and imported industries went along with retention of country habits. The interest of the youth of the region in rifles, dogs, and wildlife, like that of the Virginia gentlemen of the eighteenth century, was often greater than their interest in classroom studies.”

Doc often provoked conventional historians by saying or writing things that they did not want to hear. Invited to become a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, he willingly admitted to the administrators that he was something probably no Canadian university had ever had on its faculty—the grandson of a Confederate field officer. Doc even delighted in revealing the full name and regiment of his ancestor—Lieutenant Colonel John Calhoun Simkins of the 3rd South Carolina Artillery.

At times Doc seemed to do and say things just to shock people. A few months before his death I saw him at a party in Richmond arm-in-arm with Professor Eugene D. Genovese. Doc was taking this famous radical historian about and, to their mutual delight, introducing him to the most sheltered of Southern ladies with these words: “I’ll bet you never met a real live communist before!”

Doc sometimes acted the bumpkin, but he became serious when he spoke or wrote in opposition to the nationalizing of Southern history. In the Southern Historical Association presidential address, “Tolerating the South’s Past,” he denounced the tendency of modern historians to judge the South and its people by the modern standards of today rather than by those of the past. “Chroniclers of Southern history,” he charged, “often do not grasp the most elementary concept of sound historiography: the ability to appraise the past by standards other than those of the present. They accept a fanatical nationalism which leaves little room for sectional variations, a faith in Darwinian progress which leaves no room for static contentment, and a faith in the American dream of human equality which leaves little room for one person to get ahead of another except in making money.”

In his later years, Doc knew that most historians disagreed with his views. He also understood that his outspoken opinions together with his personal eccentricities kept him from receiving either the academic position or the professional recognition that his ability merited. He once said regarding a paper he was about to deliver at a history conference: “I fear it will be hooted by patriotic Southerners who are ashamed of the South.” He announced in 1961: “I have submitted about 10 of my essays to LSU Press. But I fear they will be adjudged too reactionary.” When, to his surprise, the Louisiana State University Press agreed to publish his essays, he discovered that he still had a problem. He feared that it would be impossible to get a Southern historian to endorse his book. “If I was young enough to be ambitious I would shut my mouth,” Doc wrote. “The New York Times magazine editor called me up, asking me to write an article, and then changed his mind in another phone call.”

Doc wisely turned for an endorsement of his last book, The Everlasting South, to his former student and friend Charles P. Roland, then a distinguished historian at the University of Kentucky. “Probably a great majority of historians today disagree with Professor Simkins’ logic,” Roland admitted in his foreword. “But probably a great majority of the common folk of the South, wittingly or unwittingly, agree with the gist of it.”

Just as Doc expected, nationalistic historians generally ignored or dismissed The Everlasting South as the work of an aberrant. “Conservatism gets no attention in the U.S.,” he complained. “Everyone, even multimillionaires, imagine themselves radicals.”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, powerful people in publishing either rejected Doc’s work or forced him to modify it to suit liberal values. “While [in New York City]…I delivered the ms of The Seaboard South…to A.A. Knopf in a short interview along with a letter of commendation of my effort from Prof. Walter Johnson, editor of the series,” wrote Simkins in 1959. “Knopf then went into a gassy tirade saying Walter and the other contributors to the regional history series were no good. I left feeling rather gloomy thinking that despite my contract, the autocratic old publisher will throw my ms out of the window.”

A few weeks later Doc received a letter that confirmed what he had feared. “Knopf sent me a devastating report on my book which may indicate that I shall not be able to revise it to his satisfaction,” Doc admitted. “A very able critic of the neo-abolitionist variety…is adverse to the idea of trying to treat the Seaboard South as a separate segment of the nation and he seems to think the only wise way to treat the Radicals, Bourbons, Negroes, and the Agrarians is in the [C. Vann] Woodward manner. But at least the objections to my book are concrete, and it may be possible to meet many of them. Knopf accepts what this critic says as gospel and the only way I could have of evading the criticism would be to throw the ms in the garbage. Naturally I am discouraged…I hate like hell to abandon The Seaboard South. I foolishly abandoned [writing a biography of Jefferson] Davis in favor of it. It is not supposed to be original scholarship, and I may not have the flair to write semi-popular stuff.”

Despite various attempts to revise that manuscript, including seeking a coauthor who was closer to what Doc called “the Knopf-Woodward-University of NC Press…position than I am,” The Seaboard South never found a publisher. But this was not because Doc insisted that his work be published without alterations; he accepted criticism, even when he disagreed with it, and he believed that revision improved his writing.

On another occasion, Doc confessed: “At the suggestion of [Professor Howard] Quint I rewrote the article on ‘Reconstruction,’ eliminating most of the Confederate ‘bias.’ He said my 1st version was too ‘conventional,’ so I have gone all out for revision.”

Doc could be amazingly forbearing of those who refused to tolerate either his work or the South’s past. “As I grow older I try to be free of prejudice and at the same time tolerate the prejudices of others,” he wrote just before his death. He liked thoughtful people regardless of what they believed. For example, he strongly supported the appointment of an Italian-Irish Catholic, a New Yorker, to the history faculty at Longwood. “I believe L[ongwood] will be satisfied with T., but will T. be satisfied with this place?” Doc asked. “I want you to write him a note in the light of your acquaintance with the Farmville community. Tell him we have a teachers’ college,” but that “we are tolerant enough to keep…diverse persons…He seems civilized and animated enough not to make the girls sleep. [Tell him that] this is a Protestant community, but it has a thriving Catholic [church]…One can get away with being an integrationist. The town is provincial, but tolerant of mannerly Yankees and other foreigners.”

In his attempt to “tell the stark truth” as he saw it, Doc never pulled his punches, not even on “big name” historians. “Allan Nevins spent the day here [at Longwood] lecturing on the glories of Big Business,” Doc once observed. “The Old Abolitionist spoke in private bitterly of the persecution of the Negro [but kept quiet on this subject in his public speech]. Of course all liked his glorification of Rockefeller and Ford.”

Doc was always modest. For a time there were two doctors named Simkins in Farmville—one was a black M.D. When Doc received phone calls asking if he was Doctor Simkins, he always answered: “Yes, but I’m not the one that can do you any good.”

To a critic, who complained about a paper that Simkins proposed to read at an historical meeting, Doc replied: “I am distressed that…you are upset by the tone of the paper I plan to read. Seemingly I have given you too severe a dose of Southern prejudice. I am taking [out] some of the phrases…as tactless and in bad taste…I like to be frank but I do not wish to offend unduly.”

In his letter to this offended Northerner, Doc explained what he believed was his responsibility, as an historian of the South, to the Southern plain folk. “You may not understand that I am attempting to give what actually the ordinary white Southerner thinks,” he wrote, “our press—liberal and reactionary—and our politicians will not give publicity to what is actually happening; they want to be over-tactful so as to attract Northern industry…As a historian I believe that all significant historical events—even Nazi Germany and Communist Russia—have explanations—perhaps even justifications. This even applies to the South…The historians, even the Southern ones,…have of late abandoned the Southern heritage…The common white people—except as they try to lure Northern investors—have not. Don’t you think they have the right—at least in an historical session—to be justified?”

Doc once told me that there were many disappointments in scholarship. He certainly had his share, especially toward the end of his career. Dismissed at LSU in 1951, Doc returned : Longwood where he had taught happily for twenty years before going to Louisiana and where he would spend his remaining years. “The work [here at Longwood] is quite elementary,” he explained. “I like that. It is conducive to…research.” “Getting hired in a teachers’ college may be terminal,” he admitted, “but it may lead to greater scholarship. You have freedom here to be a good or a bad teacher, to be lazy or industrious.” Later he stated: “I like this place. I don’t give all my time to the students’ frolics. They tolerate me and I have more time for my work than I did at L.S.U.”

Yet in giving students advice, he warned that they might be making a mistake to follow his example. Those who hoped to become successful historians should “not stay in the South;” anyone who did remain “would [soon] be talking about autos, how wonderful the little college is, and grinning at the girls.”

Doc never expected liberal nationalists to admire his work, but it disappointed him that Southerners so often misunderstood and rejected his views. During his last years, as his health failed, a touch of despair seemed mixed with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm. “I have about completed for Van Nostrand …a paperback, ‘The Reconstruction of the South, 1S65-1965,’” he wrote just before his death. “It may be too pessimistic to please.”

His greatest disappointment was that he had not spent the last years of his life on a biography of Jefferson Davis. “God. I wish I were working on J. Davis,” Simkins wrote in May 1958; ” I am—perhaps 6 or 7 hours a day—grinding out something on the Seaboard South. It may be worth little; just a pot-boiler.” A year later he complained: “I regret much having not continued with my Davis. It was a great error to turn aside for the Seaboard South.” “If Knopf reacts favorably to my [Seaboard South] b[oo]k, I shall go again after J. Davis,” Doc promised in September 1959. “I have written about 1/3 of it in long hand. I’ll copy that off on triple-space type-writer. That will perhaps give me enthusiasm to write the rest. I should never allowed myself to be diverted to the Seaboard book.” Four years later he lamented: “I regret getting diverted from Jeff Davis. If I am not too old I’ll return to that thesis.”

But he never did. Believing just as did Jefferson Davis in tolerating and justifying the South’s past, Doc could have given Davis a sympathetic yet critical understanding that he deserved but had not received. “The historian of the South should join the social novelist who accepts the values of the age and the section about which he writes,” Doc declared. “He should learn to identify truth with facts. By mixing sympathy, understanding, and a bit of kindness with his history, he might attract the people about whom he writes to read his books. And this could be done without sacrificing scholarly integrity.”

Doc’s most lasting contribution to his native land may not have been his fine study of Reconstruction in South Carolina, or his excellent biography of Ben Tillman, or even his popular History of the South, but rather his understanding that it is just as possible and just as scholarly for historians to be Southerners as it is for them to be Americans. Historians of the South should not be “ashamed of the peculiar standards of their section,” Doc pointed out. “Some of them write ‘the literature of accommodation.’ The Southern historian [Douglas Southall Freeman], who has won the greatest applause, writes of the heroes of the Confederacy without arguing whether or not they were quixotic. The best recognized historian of the Old South [Ulrich B. Phillips] pictures plantation life without assuming that it was a grand mistake. Another historian examines the literature of the poor whites without moralizing against them because they were not as thrifty as their social betters. A recent historian of the New South joins William Faulkner in exposing the true tragedy of the South; it was not the defeat at Appomattox, but the truckling of both scalawag and Bourbon, both materialist and idealist, to alien values.”

As he lay dying, Doc made two requests: first, “I hope you can help me defend the toleration of the past, which I think is the chief duty of the histori¬an;” second, “Don’t forget me.” How could a Southern historian fail to tolerate the South’s past or to forget Francis Butler Simkins?

This essay was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine in 1995.

From the Abbeville InstituteOriginal Story