Monday, November 2, 2009

This is John Galt

See left - this is John Galt, in front of a map of Ontario. A Scottish novelist, he was, living 1779 to 1839. I've read seven of his novels (and re-read two of them), and am just starting a collection of short stories. So that's eight books, total, in twelve "volumes," as Galt would have thought of them, somewhere around 1,500 pages.

Why, why on earth, why? I certainly don't recommend you do it, whoever you are, although every volume has been worth the trouble.

Galt was a magazine writer, a hack,* who somehow experienced a burst of creativity that led to the creation of a group of novels about ordinary Scottish life that were anything but hackwork. One (The Entail, 1823) is a masterpiece that can stand with the best of the century. Another (The Provost, 1822) comes close.

Also:  John Galt wrote the first political novel, decades before Disraeli or Trollope.  He wrote, as far as I can tell, the first multigenerational family saga.  Sir Andrew Wylie (1822) apparently (I ain't read it) contains an early detective story, long before Poe, in the "lawyer frees his client by finding the real murderer " subgenre.  John Stuart Mill found the word "utilitarian" in Galt's Annals of the Parish (1821).  Galt's novels features recurring characters and references - he, not Cooper, not Balzac, invented the roman-fleuve.  He actually called his Scottish books "theoretical histories," not novels, emphasizing his creation of an imaginary Scotland.

That list contains not a single reason to read a single page of John Galt, not for anyone innocent of the joys of the literature PhD.  But it does suggest one reason Galt is less read than he should be.  He was a restlessly experimental novelist.  In his non-hack novels (and he knew exactly which ones those were), he experimented with narrators, dialect, and structure.  In some of his experiments, Galt prefigures various Modernists and postmodernists.  Galt strikes me as smarter than Scott, and even Austen, about certain technical aspects of the novel, which suggests the limited importance of this particular type of intelligence.

For a while, I had planned to have a week of John Galt, just about his two best books.  But I started to read a bit more, and then a lot more, and now I want to take two weeks.  Fortunately, it's easy enough to skip or skim - in that case, be sure to return in two weeks for a special event, the first Wuthering Expectations Special Investigation.

* He was also a lobbyist for Canadian interests. He founded the city of Guelph, Ontario. Every first Monday of August, it's John Galt Day!


  1. It's crazy about Guelph, isn't it? When I read that I was like...well that's something to put on your resume.

    I don't know, though, I kind of think you're wrong about why he's not more widely read these days. His stuff doesn't seem so experimental now, after all—at least not the two novels I read. And it's good, and really, really funny.

    I was thinking about the Austen comparison last night myself. Interesting.

  2. I seem to have omitted part of my argument, which may not have been so good in the first place.

    Galt's experiments have been absorbed, rediscovered, and so on. They're now part of literary history. No current reader need give them a first thought.

    But, if Galt's temperament is a more intellectualized, and less emotional, than Scott or Austen, perhaps he is less likely to write the kinds of novels that last.

    Say, for example, that Austen really works to perfect the one kind of novel that works for her - and I mean perfects - while Galt can't stop jumping from puzzle to puzzle.

    Tentative hypothesis. Because, as you have seen, he is genuinely funny, and has no problem creating round, juicy characters.

  3. Yes, the longer version of the argument is better.

    Part of what I find odd is that even if most of what he experimented with has been incorporated, as you say, his "imaginary Scotland" alone is something. I don't know very much about Scottish literature (though with recent reading patterns I may be about to embark on a Thing), but it sure seems like Galt's villagers would be something worth keeping around in that area. I don't know, maybe that gets fully enough incorporated too. Probably does.

    Guess I'm just sad people don't like what I like.

  4. Galt's "imaginary Scotland" was unfortunately made sentimental and dim in the "kailyard novel," most famously by J. M. Barrie.

    Maybe that's why Galt fell out of favor, because of that late 19th century flood of Scottish sap.

    A logical next step for both of us is The House with the Green Shutters (1901) by George Douglas Brown, an anti-kailyard novel, not sentimental, not dim (also, not long). "[B]rutal and bloody," its author called it.

  5. I'm very curious so I for one am interested in what you have to say for TWO WEEKS about this (once considered) experimental author.

  6. Rebecca, perhaps I am just long-winded. Perhaps! Ha ha ha!

    I have eight Galt books and a short bio to squeeze in, and I just wasted a day without writing about any of them. Maybe I'll need three weeks.

    You raise a great point that I should have mentioned. Galt was actually not considered an experimental writer even though it is now obvious that he was. His readers, with one big exception, thought he wrote funny stories about Scottish life. Well, he did, they were right, but there's another side to Galt.

  7. Which two did you re-read? I realize you'll probably get to this in a later post, but which of his novels would you recommend starting with?

  8. The Entail - I'm going to end with that one. And The Provost, which is shorter but also narrower. It does one thing brilliantly. The Entail is an altogether bigger book.

    My opinion here is entirely conventional. These two books were published in the 1980s as Oxford World's Classics, so they're the easiest to find.

    On the other hand, if they're easy to get, The Last of the Lairds and The Ayrshire Legatees are surprisingly hilarious (and short).

  9. To be honest, I had never heard of him before reading Atlas Shrugged, and I've not read any of his work. Someday, maybe. It does sound kind of heady, though, so it will be one that I'll have to read with a notebook and pen when the kids are gone so I can concentrate.

    Thanks for the link :)