Re-Mapping Romanticism: The Scottish Question

Ian Duncan
November 2006
Image of a painting of two Scottish men watering their horses.

What happens to our notion of Romanticism when Scotland is part of the picture? The question calls for a disciplinary conception of the humanities rather different from the one that prevails in the institutions of English literary history.

What makes a work or author Scottish, in more than a contingent sense? Can a project that claims to be completing the abolition of Scotland as an independent sovereign entity—such as Walter Scott’s Waverley—be said to be genuinely Scottish? The question was more vexing, at least for Scots, before the resumption of a Scottish parliament in 1999, almost three centuries after the Treaty of Union, and Scottish intellectuals can now consider more calmly Scott’s achievement in terms other than nationalist betrayal. The question resonates, of course, beyond the local case. My English Department colleague Marcial González has just completed a book on the Chicano novel that considers works by a non-Chicano author who passed as one (Danny James a.k.a. Santiago) as well as novels by a Chicana author (Cecile Pineda) that treat times and spaces very far afield, much as Scott did in Ivanhoe or Count Robert of Paris. Jiwon Shin, in East Asian Languages and Cultures, tells me that 18th-century Korean fiction—passing as Chinese—offers strategies intriguingly analogous to Scott’s in Ivanhoe.

English-language literary histories still identify Romanticism with “English,” if no longer so exclusively with lyric poetry and a Coleridgean or Keatsian aesthetics. Scotland remains associated with another pseudo-historical category—that is, an ideological category disguised as a historical one: the Enlightenment. The antithesis between Scottish/Enlightenment and English/Romanticism was fixed quite early, from the Wordsworth-bashing of the Edinburgh Review, which itself systematized Scottish thought into an ideological program of political economy, as well as Wordsworth’s reciprocal scorn for “Scotch philosophers”—even as his own poetry richly engages “Enlightenment” topics and concerns. There is no equivalent in Scotland to the watershed or paradigm-shift of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798, with a manifesto to follow, 1800). James Macpherson’s “Poems of Ossian,” reviled as inauthentic but arguably the founding texts of a global or, at any rate, North Atlantic Romanticism in the 1760s, appeared at the same time as the great Scottish projects of the human sciences; indeed, Scottish philosophers subsidized Macpherson’s mission to locate and translate an ancient highland epic. Scottish and English periodizations simply do not fit; in the former case, it makes more sense to think of a century-long “period,” from Hume’s Treatise to Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, than a distinct phase of Romanticism (divided between generations of lyric poets) starting in 1798.

What happens to Romanticism when Enlightenment is part of the picture? Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature provided a theory of the imagination, and of fiction, as producing and produced by, rather than radically alien to, “common life,” which would be fully realized in Scott’s historical novels and passed on through them to the realist fiction that dominated 19th-century European literature.

Although shrunk to the margins of an English literary history, Scottish philosophy, poetry, novels, and periodicals had a massive impact outside the British Isles. Hugh Blair’s Rhetoric and Archibald Allison’s Aesthetics informed the academies of the New World. Smith’s Wealth of Nations provided the decisive philosophical argument against slavery as well as protectionism. Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon were devotés of Ossian, while American poets from Freneau to Whitman took their cue from Burns, as Robert Crawford has recently argued. Scott’s novels, as Franco Moretti put it, were arguably the most influential body of work in the history of the genre; their planetary diffusion coincided with the expansion of British imperial military and commercial networks that were in large part managed by Scots. What kind of a “world” was it that Scottish Romanticism helped shape? A continental European, North Atlantic, and (more diffused throughout the 19th century) settler-colonial world, with Scotland at its center. You could map this world—one where the “tidal wave of modernization” provoked a look back at the pre-modern past, materialized in “primitive” regional societies in the process of being overwhelmed—much as Eric Hobsbawm mapped the 19th-century global diffusion of opera-houses (in The Age of Capital). Nor did it all work one way. The Ossian epics set the pattern of an indigenous high culture for a counter-imperialist national imaginary, while Scott’s historical novels spawned anti-colonial as well as colonial mutations: Ivanhoe was Ho Chi Minh’s favorite novel as well as Tony Blair’s.

And what about literature? Current disciplinary history holds that the modern category of literature in English, meaning fictional genres, or writing loosened from factual or instrumental reference whether verse, prose, or drama, emerged conceptually in the Romantic period, as it disaggregated from a larger field comprising all kinds of written discourse—the domain that Enlightenment intellectuals called “the Republic of Letters.” The Republic of Letters was, at least nominally, a cosmopolitan domain—restricted to gentlemen—and the disaggregation of literature brought a compensatory investment with nationalist associations as well as with a “deep” appeal to “the people,” including women. Scotland provides an exceptionally clear view of this general transformation, in part because of the infrastructural shift from the university curriculum, matrix of the projects of Enlightenment, to an industrializing literary marketplace—in an Edinburgh publishing boom—after 1800.

Adam Smith supplies an exemplary case for reading the prehistory of literature among the disciplinary welter of subjects and discourses that comprised, in the 18th-century Scottish curriculum, the grand project that his mentor Hume called “the science of man.” Smith, best known today (if often inaccurately) as the prophet of free-market capitalism in his great prose georgic or one-man encyclopedia The Wealth of Nations, was also the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a groundbreaking treatise on the ethical psychology of modern civil society; he developed these books from his lecture courses on jurisprudence and moral philosophy, since the Scottish universities primarily trained lawyers and ministers of the Church of Scotland. Smith also lectured on “Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” and the history of science, and for him—at that fascinating moment when the modern fields of humanist and social-science inquiry were emerging in the English-language university, in Scotland, yet before their hard-and-fast separation into separate disciplines—all these projects were interconnected, all spoke to and inflected each other. After the chilling of the Enlightenment project in the universities (thanks to counter-revolutionary pressure through the patronage system that controlled academic appointments and careers), it resumed in the marketplace and in the bookseller’s genres of periodicals and fiction: so that Smith’s and Hume’s project, the science of man, would be carried forward—more powerfully and comprehensively than in, for example, the Edinburgh Review—in the novels of Scott. In literature.

Scottish Romanticism, to abide with that title for the present, shows us a place and time, and a changing institutional terrain, when the humanities were a human science. It helps us imagine for ourselves an intellectual matrix in which conversations among disciplines and sub-disciplines might not be constrained by a distinction between “the humanities” and those (presumptively inhuman) other fields. I don’t for a moment wish to suggest that we should return to that 18th-century moment of disciplinary emergence, even if we could, still less that we should try to fabricate some contemporary simulacrum or even equivalent of it. We’re better off where we are, even as that moment helped bring us here. Still, and apart from its rich resources of intrinsic interest, the case of Scottish literature circa 1740-1840 may open up an awareness of alternative ways of imagining literary history and the genre system in its relation to other fields of discourse and modes of knowledge-work. It may help us bear in mind the plurality of the term “humanities” so eloquently addressed by Celeste Langan in the September edition of the Townsend Newsletter.


Ian Duncan is Professor and Chair of English at UC Berkeley. He and Murray Pittock, Professor of Scottish and Romantic Literature at the University of Manchester, co-organized the “Scottish Romanticism in World Literatures” conference held at Berkeley September 7-10, 2006. The Townsend Center was a co-sponsor of the event.

This article can be found in the November/December 2006 newsletter