The Magazine

The Devil in Scotland

James Hogg's 1824 novel of sin and salvation.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By ALAN JACOBS
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Private Memoirs and Confessions

of a Justified Sinner

by James Hogg

New York Review of Books, 272 pp., $12.95

THERE IS A KIND OF literary greatness that only a badly made book can possess. Badly made books are not typically great, of course; but it sometimes happens that a writer of limited skills encounters a subject that runs away with him--and when that happens, the result can achieve a narrative propulsion that makes its flaws seem insignificant. The reader notices them, surely, and perhaps smiles, but keeps on reading, caught by the heedless momentum of the tale. Such a subject came once to a man named James Hogg.

Hogg was born in the Ettrick Forest, in the Border country of Scotland, in 1770. As a boy and a young man he worked as a shepherd, but wished to become a writer, so he sent some of his poems to Sir Walter Scott, who praised them and promoted their author. In that age--so devoted to the idea that poetic genius surges up from within the sensitive breast but can be stifled by education--it was perhaps inevitable that Hogg would become famous as the "Ettrick Shepherd."

Hogg seemed to have found the role rather congenial; in his books he presents himself as a roughhewn and shrewd peasant, and he often claimed (falsely) that he avoided reading other people's books in order to preserve his artistic integrity. But at least one visitor to Hogg in Edinburgh, where the poet had moved in 1810, was stunned to find him "smooth, well-looking, and gentlemanly." Apparently this fellow had expected to find Hogg urging a flock of sheep along the Royal Mile. Perhaps sensing the incongruity between his public image and his private life, Hogg retired in 1816 to a farm and lived in the country for most of the rest of his life. He died in 1835, and Wordsworth wrote an elegy for him.

Hogg published hundreds of poems, several novels, a memoir of Walter Scott, and much else. None of it seems to be especially good--with one exception: a novel entitled "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner," published in 1824. This extraordinary book has recently been reprinted by New York Review of Books, and it deserves renewed attention, although it may be too strange to receive it. Margot Livesey, a novelist who has written an introduction to this edition, commends the book by claiming that it "becomes only more piercingly relevant with each passing year." In her view, this is because "James Hogg offers a compelling and subtle portrait of a human condition that, alas, we ignore at our peril: fanaticism."

Though I am glad to see Livesey's praise of Hogg's masterpiece, her account of the book's importance is unhelpful, chiefly because the term "fanaticism" is incapable of meaningful definition. What is a fanatic, after all? It seems to me that a fanatic can best be defined as someone who believes something I do not and believes it more deeply than I believe anything. Fanaticism, then, by extension, is the state of experiencing intense and unimaginable assurance--unimaginable, that is, to me. Fanaticism, even more than beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

But Hogg was not pursuing anything so vague as fanaticism. It is true that Hogg himself, or rather the fictional "editor" of the story, uses Livesey's favored term to encapsulate the horrific narrative he has just presented to us: "We have heard much of the rage of fanaticism in former days [that is, the seventeenth century, in which the narrative is set], but nothing to this." It is also true that a pirated and bowdlerized version of the novel published two years after Hogg's death was called "The Confessions of a Fanatic." But fanaticism in general does not interest Hogg. A much more theologically and historically particular belief is what he is interested in limning. Its technical name is antinomianism, and more precisely still, the kind of antinomianism that can arise from the doctrine called "predestination to election."