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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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But in a sense, Scott’s books were out of date as soon as he wrote them. It’s not simply that he had the antiquarian habit of celebrating the past for its pastness; his novels represent the rejection of the idea—central to life in a modern commercial society—that individual identity can be altered for the purpose of achieving desirable ends. Scott’s heroes achieve great things by becoming the people they were meant to be. Henry Morton in Old Mortality fights with the Covenanters not because he thinks they’re right in every point, or even most points, but because he is the son of Silas Morton and because he is a Scot. Edward Waverley joins the Stuart cause because the uncle by whom he was raised, Sir Everard, was a Jacobite. Rebecca in Ivanhoe refuses to renounce her faith and save her life because, she says, “It was the law of my fathers.” Scott’s most memorable characters can say, with Moses Herzog in Bellow’s great novel, “Myself is thus and so, and will continue thus and so.”

Scott’s harshest ridicule, by contrast, is reserved for those who try to move higher than what their talents, education, or breeding will allow. Bartoline Saddletree, the pedantic shopkeeper who wants to be known as a legal scholar in Heart of Midlothian, nearly ruins his family by spending all his time at the Court of Session and consequently away from the shop. Indeed, whereas Scott’s most loathsome characters tend to be members of the “middle ranks,” his peasants and provincials almost always possess good humor, common sense, and—as with Cuddie Headrigg in Old Mortality or Edie Ochiltree in The Antiquary—penetrating insight. To borrow Roy Jenkins’s observation about Winston Churchill, Scott always rooted for the underdog against the middle dog.

So pronounced is Scott’s hostility to the ambitious bourgeoisie that he has been honored from time to time among Marxists. Seventy-five years ago the Hungarian Communist Georg Lukács portrayed Scott’s conception of historical development as Hegelian dialectic. Lukács, though spectacularly wrong on literary-critical matters unless one happens to be a Marxist, was nevertheless right to see in Scott’s fiction a fundamental opposition to the forces shaping modernity: the expansion of wealth, the middle class, and democracy. This can’t be said about the other great 19th-century novelists, none of whom harbored aristocratic pretensions the way Scott did, and even the most conservative of whom came to terms with democracy’s forward march.

Scott’s fame is a leatherbound memory now. But in his day Sir Walter Scott was the most famous name in literature. The Waverley novels were loved by great men as distant from each other as William Gladstone and Alexander Pushkin. They were to 19th-century literature what Haydn’s symphonies were to its music: not so much a model to be imitated as an achievement to be enjoyed. That such an author has been almost completely forgotten tells us as much about him as about ourselves.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1771, the son of a solicitor. Throughout his young years he read widely—his mother supplied him with all the latest works of polite learning and French novels—but like so many imaginative geniuses, he had poorly organized mental habits, and he was a mediocre student. He hated the drudgery of having to study what he was told to study. His grasp of ancient and modern literature was impressive and his memory phenomenal; he could quote Latin lines verbatim years after he had read them in school. But Scott would always feel that his education had been less than what it should have been.

It is with the deepest regret that I recollect in my manhood the opportunities of learning which I neglected in my youth; that through every part of my literary career I have felt pinched and hampered by my own ignorance; and that I would at this moment give half the reputation I have had the good fortune to acquire if by doing so I could rest the remaining part upon a sound foundation of learning and science.

That sense of his own ignorance infused his treatment of the past with an element of humility that distinguishes it from other works of history, fictional and otherwise—a deep appreciation of history’s complexity and man’s limited capacity to understand it.

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