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Scot on the Rocks

Why readers should rediscover Sir Walter Scott.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By BARTON SWAIM
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As recently as a century ago, Sir Walter Scott was known all over Europe and America. In life he had been the original literary celebrity, called “the Great Unknown” because his novels were published anonymously, although everybody knew their author’s identity. By the time of his death in 1832 his works were available in French, German, Italian, Swedish, Polish, Danish, Russian, and Hungarian. Scott was as influential as any writer of his age could be. Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo, among many others, all attested to his greatness. Mark Twain’s claim that Scott caused the American Civil War was intended as provocative hyperbole, but the fact that he had a point at all is itself a remarkable testimony to one man’s influence.

Painting of Sir Walter Scott reading a paper

Sir Walter Scott by Sir William Allan (1831)

And now Scott is forgotten. Not utterly forgotten: His best novels (though not his long poems) are still in print, and there is still a small but highly competent circle of British and American scholars devoted to Scott’s work. But whereas Jane Austen is read by undergraduates and filmed endlessly, Scott is known rather than read, studied rather than loved. The fate of Sir Walter Scott over the last 50 years, as the English critic Jonathan Keates has observed, is the worst kind of literary demise: “Some writers are fortunate enough to attain instant classic status, others are recovered from oblivion with an almost over-compensatory degree of enthusiasm, while death deservedly topples some from the pinnacles of international significance and adulation.”

Scott, by contrast, “has been banished forever, as it must seem, to the purgatory of a cold, incurious respect, to the shadowland of literary history, in which his importance (the word itself is a sort of dead hand) is suffered rather than examined.”

The accuracy of that assessment was reinforced, to my mind, recently when the Edinburgh University Press published the last in its 28-volume series of Scott’s Waverley novels. This is the first critical edition of Scott’s novels to make substantive use of the author’s manuscripts. Earlier collections have relied on first editions, which contained many errors owing to the speed with which publishers hurried them into print. The new critical editions are prefaced with intelligent essays, and historical and textual notes are kept to an unpretentious minimum. It is a stupendous scholarly achievement—and yet it has been remarked by virtually no one on either side of the Atlantic, outside a few scholarly journals. W. E. K. Anderson’s quip, made 40 years ago, that the “Great Unknown” has become the “Great Unread” is now almost literally true. 

There are practical reasons why this should be so. Many of Scott’s most famous works contain long passages of Scots dialect that tax modern readers (Ye maunna gar muckle o’t = You mustn’t make much of it). The glossaries contained in paperback “classics” editions are helpful, but consulting a glossary is cumbersome. Even in his own day Scott assumed a high level of historical knowledge among his readers; today that knowledge is largely absent.

But there’s more to Scott’s demise than that, and I suspect Keates’s allusion to “changing cultural and social attitudes” gets to the truth. James Bowman, in his excellent Honor: A History (2006), credits Scott with doing more than any other figure to adapt the old notions of honor to the new historical circumstances of 19th-century Britain. Honor had until then referred to a man’s standing among his equals—his reputation, what he was known for doing or not doing—but the spirit of the age demanded that inward qualities be considered equally important, if indeed not more so. It was Scott’s achievement, says Bowman, to meld these two conceptions into what became the basis for the Christian Gentleman: a compromise between inward goodness and outward reputation, between Christian humility and worldly aggression.

Scott wrote for an age in which the literati had grown skeptical of honor, but in which most people still instinctively felt its claims. His ability to define a new kind of honor is a large part of what gave Scott’s novels their spectacular appeal in Britain and America for at least a century after his death. But it’s also what makes him seem dated and unserious now. Scott traded in a currency that has lost its purchasing power: The tormented decisions made by Henry Morton or Edward Waverley are apt to seem to us like the harmless hooey of chivalric lore, the make-believe of period romance.

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