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).


4 responses to “portraits of the artist: Sher, chapter 2

  1. Less argumentative and more descriptive is all right by me. I particularly liked your discussion of the Scottish Grubs. It’s interesting to compare their experience with that of the indigenous English Grub. But then I’m fascinated by any Grubs, no matter the nationality.

    In reading your post, I thought of a chapter in Raymond William’s Long Revolution entitled “The Social History of English Writers” (in which, I believe, he includes Scots writers). I’ve always found Williams’s sociological approach helpful. Even more helpful is Sher’s sociological approach, in which he takes it to the next level.

    Joseph Byrne

  2. As I was reading this portion, I kept thinking about Matt’s and Jery’s visit to the Grubs in Humphry Clinker. I say this knowing that Sher is to some extent trying to wrest book history away from the preoccupations of literary history. But the Grubs, and the necessarily regional/national perspective they bring to bear upon Enlightenment, helps to reveal the supplementary labor necessary to do the big collaborative projects that Smollett and the publishers became famous for.

  3. Eleanor Shevlin

    I kept thinking of Smollett, too, at several stages. Your remarks, Dave, appearing in thefirst two paragraphs of your chapter 1 post caused me to think of Smollett–perhaps triggered by your positing of “compensation” as a motivating factor. Also, as I was preparing the summary of chapter 3 and addressing the issues of the social services that publishers performed for authors in their roles as “new patrons,” I found my thoughts drifting to Humphry Clinker and the dinner Smollett gives for the Grub Street hacks.

    As for Grubs, earlier this summer I had occasion to do a little work on Abel Boyer as “author,” and I was very struck by his treatment/reputation in some camps as a cosmopolitan man of letters and in other realms as a Grub Street writer. These two conflicting views of Boyer seem to be a product of different agendas in ways that are not that dissimilar to the split depictions of Creech that have been passed on to us. Which view of a figure has ascendency and greater credit seems to be an important yet often neglected factor in the construction of historical views of individuals, their circles, roles, and so forth.

  4. Bless the Grub Street hacks! Dr. Johnson has gained my affection by showing affection–or at least bemused tolerance–for Grub Street. At the same time, Pope has a blast blasting Grub Street, and I like that too.

    Even more interesting, as you both point out, is the various ways the Grub Street slur was employed in the eighteenth century, as part of various, and sometimes nefarious, agendas. Also worth noting is that Creech was actually hit with a reverse-Grub Street slur: he was too privileged and cosseted to be of account, unlike the supposed up-from-the-gutters Constable.