First they read Walter Scott. It was like the shock of a new world revealed. (Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet, Ch. 6, tr. Mark Polizzotti)
Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building [of Louisiana]; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883, Ch. 40)
Twain’s great screed against Walter Scott is in Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 46. I have long wondered to what extent he meant it.
Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. (Ch. 46)
In the next line he does call this a “wild proposition.” His argument is that for some unspecified reason, Southern culture was especially susceptible to Scott’s “Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.”
Twain returns to the idea enough that I think he did mean it. Tom Sawyer is Twain’s Scott-damaged representative, harmless enough in his own book but dangerous in the notorious last episode of Huckleberry Finn (1885). That much-hated ending has almost convinced me that Twain was right, although he puts too much emphasis on the medieval Scott, when his Scottish novels are more important (and also better novels).
The Southern gentility, much of it descended from the people depicted in Scott’s novels, embraced the ethos of honor and glory they read about in the novels as their own, along with an ugly modernization of the clannishness. Losing the war only added to the identification with Scott’s doomed loyalists and fanatics, sacrificing everything for the Young Pretender or radical Calvinism, depending on which novel seemed most appealing. That Scott and his protagonists are generally on the other side is beside the point.
Much of the decline of Scott comes from the massive shifts in our idea of honor – true no matter who I mean by “our,” I think – and the replacement of glory with celebrity. Twain, one of his time’s greatest celebrities, writes as an opponent of the old honor.
[Scott] did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.
So, that first line aside, I just about half believe Twain, maybe about as much as he believed himself.
Life on the Mississippi is, setting the Scott chapter aside, great fun from beginning to end – “The Mississippi is well worth reading about” (Ch. 1). It is about one-third the memoir of Twain’s time as a cub pilot in the 1850s, and two-thirds a travel book with Twain revisiting the river. I had thought the proportions were reversed. At times I wished the proportions were reversed. I mean, the glory days of the steamboats, what a time. A visit to St. Paul – Twain is thorough – is not as interesting, even in Twain’s hands. The proportion of nonsense and digression is satisfyingly similar to other Twain “non-fiction.”