Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ha! Where ye gaun, ye crowlan ferlie! - Scotch literature from Burns and before

My Scottish reading lists are not meant to include every Scottish writer who ever lived, or every book by the writers I have mentioned, but only those books that I think someone might actually want to read.  My judgment on that subject could be quite wrong.  Corrections very welcome.  Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature (2009, Oxford University Press) by Robert Crawford has been most helpful.

I have read exactly one pre-18th century Scottish writer, the great early modern poet William Dunbar (c. 1460- c. 1513).  His “Lament for the Makaris” is a landmark poem.  The one with the flying machine is a hoot.  Dunbar's language is like Chaucer's, but Scottish, so rather more challenging.

Thomas Urquhart's translation of the first two books of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1653) is most tempting.  The excerpts I have seen are just wild.

The Scottish ballad tradition is rich, but I don’t know much about it.  Pick out an anthology for me.

I count three major 18th century novelists and poets.  Tobias Smollett was, with Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, one of the first important English novelists.  Smollett was a disciple of Fielding, and of Cervantes.  He is great fun.  The three most famous novels are:

Roderick Random (1748) – a true Spanish-style picaresque, with some classic naval scenes.
Peregrine Pickle (1751) – this one is by far the longest.
Humphrey Clinker (1771) – the cleverest epistolary novel of its age.  See bibliographing for samples.

James Boswell should not have been a major writer, but, somehow, he wrote one of the best books in the English language, and left behind a lengthy journal that is itself a delight.  Some highlights:

The London Journal , published 1950, but covering 1762-63.  Twelve additional volumes follow.  The best title is Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769.
A Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1785).  Read Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland first, then Boswell's rather different account of the same trip.  They’re typically published together now.
The Life of Johnson (1791). A monument, a masterpiece. Enormously long.

The quintessential Scotch author is Robert Burns. You want a nice, thick Selected Poems, like the Penguin Classics edition. Don’t skimp. Much of his best work was composed in a shocking six months of unmatched creativity in 1786.  This post's title is from "To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church."

There were plenty of other Scottish poets – anyone up for Allan Ramsay? – but no one close to Burns in quality. One, James Macpherson aka Ossian, I refuse to read. You can tell me about him, if you like.

David Hume and Adam Smith and other Scottish Enlightenment figures seem like fair game, although I’m not sure how literary they are.  Enjoy the "Digression on Silver"!

If I were more serious about the 18th century, I would have already read the long poem The Seasons (1726+) by James Thomson, and the novels The Man of Feeling (1771) by Henry Mackenzie and The Female Quixote (1752) by Charlotte Lennox. Meh. Well, you can change my mind.

A couple of great travel books.  Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799) is a classic of Scotch persistence, a high-spirited solo journey through present-day Senegal and Mali.  He ends the trip with nothing but rags and his enormous hat, stuffed with his notes.  I have actually crossed paths with Park’s disastrous second expedition.

Alexander Mackenzie and his companions were the first men to cross the breadth of the North American continent.  His canoe trip into and across the Rockies (as well as an earlier trip to the Arctic sea) is described in Journal of the Voyage to the Pacific (1801).  These explorers were all a little nuts.

What should you read?  Burns, if you haven’t.  And Humphrey Clinker, certainly.  But I want to really plug Boswell.  The bulky Life of Johnson is a challenge all its own, so set that aside for a moment.  Instead, I want to advocate for Boswell’s journals.  The first volume, The London Journal, is one of the great books of the century, really.  Boswell is such a rich character, vain, weak-willed, ambitious, self-pitying, and foolish, but somehow so amazingly alive.  I’ve read all twelve volumes of the journal, and would love to read them again.  The account of the Scottish trip with Dr. Johnson is another fine way to get to know Boswell at his best without committing to the entire Life of Johnson.  Having said that, yes, Life of Johnson, absolutely!


  1. You are a cruel man endorsing Boswell like that. I've been wanting to read A Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides for while now. Here you've gone and set Boswell up to tempt me from Carlyle. My determination has a wobble and doubt is beginning to erode my attempts to psych myself up for Sartor. Boswell seems so much more delightful than crazy cranky Carlyle. My will power is weakening!

  2. Just a reminder that Burns Night is fast approaching. Time to pull out the haggis and poetry.

  3. I sure hope you like Sir Walter Scott, because that's where I'm going first.

  4. Scott and Carlyle are on tomorrow's list. I do like Scott, even though it may not sound like it from what I wrote for tomorrow. I just want people to know what they're getting into.

    Delightful? Oh, yeah, Boswell trumps Carlyle there. But Sartor Resartus, read in the right spirit, is - well, there's room for delight.

    Right, thanks. Burns Night is Monday, more or less. I'm now obsessed with a different Scotish poet, though. So I may neglect Burns. Bysshe Vanolis, man - I had to see it to believe it. He's on Friday's list.

  5. Pretty funny, watching this get going. Keep it coming! I'm wondering about how to proceed and when, as early year books seem to be piling up--I'm trying to figure out how to pull off some sort of quick Boswell trick.

    The "Scottish Books" volume sounds handy and helpful. As long as you're wandering around, maybe you can let us know about any of the writing and literature about "The Bruce," which I'd be curious to know and might delve into. Maybe you already covered it and I missed it. My maternal grandfather, a heating contractor in Detroit, was a Bruce of some sort--pretty common name, but my brother got married in a Bruce kilt (because he's nuts).

    Want to read some Galt. Smollett is intriguing too. But nothing right away I'm afraid.

  6. "A quick Boswell trick": the accounts of Johnson's and Boswell's Scottish trip total 375 pages in my Penguin edition (120 of Johnson).

    John Barbour's The Bruce (c. 1375) should go on this list - it's earlier than Dunbar. I skipped it because I forgot about it, so thanks for the reminder. But I forgot about it because 1) it's quite long, 2) and I've picked up the idea somewhere that it's not aesthetically first-rate.

    That's based on who knows what and is likely wrong. And it's not that long - less than 400 pages in a modern (translated) edtion.

  7. Oh, dear... "The Life of Samuel Johnson" is "enormously long"? I'm now upset... When I bought the Penguin Classics edition (this was quite a few years back) of it, I was naturally dismayed to find out it was abridged! (It was a Penguin Classic - surely one expects better from them! Traitors!) Now I'm wondering how much they cut out - or perhaps I should say how little they left in... Not only was it not enormously long - it wasn't even long! Ach!

    I like Scott (I re-read "Rob Roy" last year) - I'm now wondering what you are going to say about him - nothing unkind, I hope.:) (But of course if people go in expecting easily read, bodice-ripper romance they will be disappointed... :))

    I've read "The Female Quixote". I thought it was hilarious - my mother, to put it mildly, did not. This was so many years ago, though, that I'd have to re-read it to see how I feel about it now. I'm not sure I'll be able to get to that this year.

    Sorry about this horridly long comment.:)


  8. My Oxford World's Classic Life of Johnson is 1,402 big pages. Reading an abridgement is not crazy.

    I appreciate the endorsements of Scott and Lennox. Its those little nudges that get people to read books. I like long comments, too. I write 'em all the time.

  9. 1,402 pages? Wow - that is almost "Clarissa"-length! Mine is 309 pages - including the Introduction. (The book was purchased in 1991.)


  10. Maybe I'll do some Burns. I sang the My Love is a Red Rose song in a choir at least twice.

    Or maybe I'll find an *abridgement* of Boswell's Life of Johnson. I don't want to kill myself here. Or at least I don't want to end up wanting to kill myself.

  11. Oh, read Mackenzie! The Man of Feeling is less than 100 pages long, and it will show just how bad a novel can be! Don't you want to know??

    The Female Quixote is fun, if a little overly long in some places. But the same can be said of most 18C novels, right?

  12. The Female Quixote is fun, if a little overly long in some places. But the same can be said of most 18C novels, right?

    Ha ha ha! Yes. The answer to that question is Yes.

    Rebecca - Burns, excellent, abridged Boswell, excellent. But don't make up your mind until you see the lovely offerings of 1858-1914.

  13. I just complete James Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and will post some thoughts on it soon-I found this one quote I wanted to share as it gives a very good reason for maintaining a book blog
    "everyman should keep minutes of whatever he reads. Every circumstance of his studies should be recorded; what books he has consulted; how much of them he has read; at what time; how often the same authors; and what opinions he formed of them, at different periods of his life. Such an account would much illustrate the history of his mind"
    (Thursday, 30th Sept-1773)