Indiana State University Newsroom

Professor's great-grandfather-in-law fuels research

April 22, 2010

When ISU English professor and poet Matthew Brennan met and married his wife, ISU music professor Beverley Simms, he never expected her family history to become subject material for his scholarly writing.

In fact, when family conversations centered upon the brilliance of Simms' great-grandfather William Gilmore Simms, Brennan was dubious at best.

"I was skeptical of their claims, I admit it," Brennan said. "I'd never even heard of him until I met Beverley."

But the more Brennan learned about the novels, poems and history of his wife's great-grandfather, the more intrigued he became, he said. Now, eight years after his research began, Brennan has produced a book with the hope that more people will develop an appreciation for Simms.

"This is my attempt to rescue William Gilmore Simms from the dust bin of American history," Brennan said.

Brennan contends it's a rescue well worth making.

In the book released this month titled "The Poet's Holy Craft," Brennan upholds Simms as a pioneering voice in American poetry. Brennan examined Simms' poetics and experimental sonnets and concluded that his romantic inclination toward experimenting with sonnet forms and themes superseded even the British romantics. Simms' letters, reviews, lectures, manuscripts and drafts reveal his attitude toward nature and his affinity for William Wordsworth - also pointing toward precursory romanticism.

While the idea of writing about his wife's ancestor didn't immediately appeal to Brennan, he said delving into the work of his great-grandfather-in-law has been a fulfilling exercise.

"I found it to be very inspiring," Brennan said. "There is something exciting about trying to correct the historical record, to bring him back to life."

Brennan's work not only revives the family name, it has broadened the focus of his work and opened a new area of research for other scholars.

Six volumes of letters and archival materials housed at the University of South Carolina document Simms' relationships with other writers such as William Cullen Bryant and Edgar Allan Poe.

"It's a wealth of information for anyone interested in delving into it," Brennan said.

Brennan completed his undergraduate work at Grinnell College and earned his master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Minnesota. His poems have appeared in more than 60 publications. The most recent of his five books of poetry, "The House with the Mansard Roof," was released in July.

Contact: Matthew Brennan, professor of English, College of Arts and Science, Indiana State University at 812-237-3277, or

Writer: Rachel Wedding McClelland, assistant director of media relations, Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University at 812-237-3790 or

Photo: Matthew Brennan (Tony Campbell/ISU).