'Walter Scott at 250, Looking Forward' edited by Caroline McCracken-Flesher and Matthew Wickman (published by Edinburgh University Press)
Caroline McCracken-Flesher is an old friend whom I visited decades ago at Laramie's University of Wyoming. So I was delighted to see she was the co-editor of a new collection of essays on Sir Walter Scott with such an intriguing title. The EUP volume turned out to be only 227 pages long, and to contain 10 essays by different hands. Reviewing it, however, has proved to be more problematic than I expected.
The nature of my problem is best indicated if I cite the title of three of the book's essays: I bide my time: History and the Future Anterior in 'The Bride of Lammermoor
' by Edinburgh's Penny Fielding; Scott and the Art of Surplusage: Excess in the Narrative Poems
by Aberdeen's Alison Lumsden; and Reading Walter Scott in the Anthropocene
by Essex's Susan Oliver.
Like I suspect other possible readers, I am unfamiliar with such terms as the 'Future Anterior', 'Surplusage', and 'Anthropocene', so the titles alone are something of a problem. In fact, I found the majority of these essays a difficult read. Over and over again, their arguments are complex, refined and sophisticated. Statements are qualified, then qualified again, and perhaps again, until any conclusion is difficult to identify.
I must admit that, given the book's title, I expected it would begin with some kind of overview of Scott's status over the preceding 250 years, perhaps focusing on the contrast between his worldwide, towering standing in the 19th century, its collapse in the 20th, and its uncertainty today. However, these 250 years are dismissed in a few early paragraphs.
The book's essays are preceded by Acknowledgements
and its opening sentence is this: 'As Walter Scott at 250
shows, good things take time'. It emerges that the idea of the book dates back to 2010. Its future title was that of a panel at a Modern Language Association conference in Los Angeles in 2011, set up by its current editors. The panel was then joined by two of the book's subsequent contributors – Ian Duncan and Celeste Langan of Berkeley. More future contributors took part in a Scott conference at the University of Wyoming later in 2011, but the final shaping of the book in the following years involved what the editors call 'the global community of Scott scholars'. That community was clearly enthusiastic about celebrating the great writer's 250th anniversary, but what I should have taken more notice of was the book's eventual sub-title: Looking Forward
. Contributors would focus on the future, not the past.
What I find so difficult in many of these essays then is largely the result of current Scott scholars accepting the challenge to suggest and develop new areas of research and criticism in Scott studies. Take, for example, Susan Oliver's Reading Scott in the Anthropocene
. Its opening sentence is 'To say that Walter Scott speaks meaningfully to a 21st-century anthropocenic world defined by accelerating climate change, species loss, plastic pollution and human migration is a bold claim'.
My dictionary defines the 'Anthropocene' as a 'proposed term for the present geological epoch (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards) during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment'. What follows is the first example I have read of a new area of study called 'Ecocriticism'. It 'comprises a network of strategies for interpretation', and Scott 'provides a model for ecocritical enquiry not least because of the extent to which he draws attention to the interdependence of people, other living things and place'. In need of recognition, we are told, is not only Scott's 'human concerns' but the attention he drew 'to the predicaments facing a wider world of vital but endangered ecologies'. The essay goes on to supply that recognition in lively and illuminating detail.
Of course, not all the essays are as ground-breaking as this one, but all do succeed in finding something new to say. Again, not all are as demanding and difficult as I have suggested above. Professor Lumsden's Surplusage
piece turns out to be about the surprising – but fascinating – difference between the kind of notes that Scott choses to supply for his novels as opposed to those he provides for his narrative poems. Then Matthew Wickman's essay on 'Redgauntlet': Speculation in History, Speculation in Nature
I found a tricky read, whereas his co-editor's Where We Never Were: Women at Walter Scott's Abbotsford
– about the historical and critical invisibility of the women around Scott – was both entertaining and extraordinary.
Early in the book's Introduction,
the editors raise some interesting questions relevant to the status of literary studies in our current universities. Scholars, they write, increasingly face situations in which they are 'encouraged to transform themselves into "intrapreneurs", advancing the institution's interests through individual initiative and marketable innovation; the crisis they face does not concern publishing or perishing so much as demonstrating the economic value of the publishing they do'.
Within such a context, what is the value of a book such as this? Its appeal to general readers is clearly very limited. Priced at £75, the vast majority of bookshops will not stock it. Even public libraries will not necessarily buy it. Who are its potential readers? Basically, I suspect, only a handful of Scott specialists.
Its editors are right to suggest that our universities have become commercialised institutions. The current Minister of Education, Gavin Williamson, and the current Minister of Culture, Oliver Dowden, see the value of higher education only in economic terms. Ludicrously, they believe that students only attend university to guarantee themselves a well-paid job. Hence, they believe that only STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are worth studying.
HASS subjects (humanities, arts and social sciences) on the other hand are condemned as teaching 'dead-end' courses. Financial support should be provided only for students taking STEM courses, and state support for HASS courses should be cut by half. Those responsible for running our universities have broadly gone along with these destructive, banal and uncivilised ideas. I read, for example, of so-called universities that teach no modern languages, or have no history departments.
Given all this, what should scholars be doing? I really don't know what the answer is, but aiming to write books and essays that might appeal to the common reader might at least be a help.
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow