Daily Archives: October 18, 2009

portraits of the artist: Sher, chapter 2


[Two contrasting images of the historian William Robertson, courtesy of Wikipedia, the first taken from an oil portrait and the second from a German translation of his History of America.]

The chapter “Identity and Diversity among Scottish Authors” is probably less argumentative and more descriptive than the others in this book, but it contains a substantial discussion of the 115 Scottish authors included in his tables of authors and works, and serves almost as a sociology of the Scottish Enlightenment between 1746-1800.

The virtue of this sociological approach, rather than a straightforwardly literary-historical one, is that we back away from the usual biographical focus on undisputed major figures like Hume or Smollett, and begin to see even these famous writers, along with a host of unknowns, as men who fit a definite professional profile in the period, albeit with the usual caveats about variations and outliers.

This sociology of authorship also has the virtue of showing, for example, that the national, social, and familial networks among Scottish writers played an enormous role in developing an esprit de corps in this period, but that this corporate identity was as likely to reinforce Scottish insecurities  as it was to foster English fears.

The insecurities documented here are the usual ones of any outside group making its way to the metropolis to earn a living among strangers: ambivalence about one’s origins; fears of self-betrayal through inadvertent speech or mannerism; fear and distrust of the metropolitan “mobs.”

In this light, I was interested in how important “politeness” was for regulating one’s own and others’ conduct in this social context, and how much effort “politeness” required to be sustained at home and abroad.  Though plenty of titled names appear on Sher’s list, the overall impression one gets from these accounts is one of extremely disciplined professional men toiling away in universities over many decades.  In these universities, they faced the usual struggles to gain recognition in a politically murky environment where accomplishment was not (is not) routinely  rewarded.

For this reason, local differences often had to be overlooked for the sake of the group winning greater recognition for Scots writers generally.  (This dynamic seems to account for the odd mixture of toleration and abuse often directed towards Hume) Academic readers will therefore find a very familiar dynamic in which oral lectures and presentations are steadily revised and reworked for publication, so that the universities and learned societies become the staging grounds for many of the best-known works of this period.  This kind of de facto collaborative work, like much of our academic writing, demands a great deal of complaisance from all sides, but there were always those, like Dr. John Brown (not the writer of the Estimate), who were best-known for violating these tacit agreements.

At the same time, I was intrigued by the stories of the dissipated Scottish Grubs who frequented the British Coffee House–men like William Guthrie, Gilbert Stuart, William Thomson, and others–who sought literary fame but were disappointed for reason or another.  In most cases, these seem to have been men who were not able to get (or retain) their desired professional posts or preferments, and who were left therefore to the mercies of the publishers and the public.  Sher points out that most of these men died early, from the physical strains of overwork and literary overproduction, and their fate helps make Smollett’s early death, at the age of 50, more comprehensible.

But the fates of talented men like Robert Heron (in Sir Walter Scott’s words, “a mere sot and beast” who “starved to death” [quoted by Sher, 127]), showed just how far men could fall in this unforgiving environment, and help to illuminate the very different trajectories of, say, Robert Fergusson (dead in a madhouse at 28) and James Macpherson (abandoned literature for political preferment in his 30s, and died well off at his own estate just short of 60 years old).  It is for this reason that Sher arrives at the persuasively anti-Romantic formulation that “the paradigm of the ‘modern’ author is not independence in the sense of having no occupation other than writing for publication but rather independence in the sense of integration into the appropriate professions and professional institutions” (11).