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Matthew Wickman

Walter Scott at 250: Looking Forward

Walter Scott at 250: Looking Forward

Edinburgh University Press; 1st Edition, 2021

At 250, Walter Scott points toward our possible futures. Scott, although we necessarily look on his times as past, of course experienced them as present. His times were times of crisis. Scott, then, has much to share in the experience, narration, anticipation and response to change as a condition of life – a condition our era, with its existential challenges to climate, to public health, to civilization knows only too well. In Scott at 250, major scholars foreground the author as theorist of tomorrow – as the surveyor of the complexities of the present who also gazes, as we do, toward an anxious and hopeful future.

Review by Paul Westover at Faculty Book Lunch

I’m pleased to share with you this essay collection recently published by Edinburgh University Press and edited by two scholars I value as friends, Caroline McCracken-Flesher of the University of Wyoming and our own Matthew Wickman. In fact, several of the contributors they have recruited are also friends (a few have visited our campus), so reading their latest work has been a privilege. The book is called Walter Scott at 250: Looking Forward.

My first thought on taking this assignment was that I might begin with a metafictional preface attributed to a fictional scholar—say, Dr. Jonas Dryasdust, the eminent antiquarian. Ideally, I would then append some twenty pages of authenticating footnotes. Scarcity of time prevented me from realizing this scheme, as did my worry that, after all, only a handful of people would be likely to get the joke.

For many years, Walter Scott was called “The Great Unknown”—this because he had published his novels anonymously. Now, as the common lament goes, “The Great Unknown” has become “The Great Unread.” To be sure, Scott has made a comeback in recent years, at least in academic circles. Yet how many people, even in this highly literate audience, have been serious readers of Sir Walter Scott? The story of Scott’s disappearance from bookshelves and readers’ hearts is astonishing. The man for whom the largest monument ever built for an author was constructed; the man whose home every self-respecting tourist aimed to visit; the man on whom Mark Twain blamed the Civil War; the man whose statue graces New York’s Central Park and other prominent places across the globe; the bestselling poet of his generation; the author of more than two dozen blockbuster novels that found their way to every corner of the English-speaking world (not to mention to many other places by way of translation); the man, in short, who was arguably the most read author of the entire nineteenth century, has now become the sort of author that contestants on Jeopardy! miss questions about.

The story behind Scott’s collapse in popularity and critical esteem is fascinating and complicated. Another of our other mutual friends, Ann Rigney, has written a whole book about it, The Afterlives of Walter Scott. So, in a different way, has Scottish journalist Stuart Kelly. In his engaging Scott-Land, he writes of Scott as a dusty antique if not a prehistoric creature, a “literary trilobite.” He adds, however (relating his own conversion story), that Scott remains readable, “enjoyable and even breath catching,” if people are willing to adjust their mindsets and learn “to love a certain slowness” (4).

The title of this new collection, therefore, is a mild provocation, since Walter Scott is so often understood as a writer looking backward, and furthermore, mired in an unrecoverable past. And yet, as our editors write, “objects in the mirror are always closer than they appear” (3). After all, Scott wrote to a world that in many ways remains recognizable. Though he specialized in historical fiction, his work helped readers process a turbulent present. Scott lived from 1771 to 1832, the era of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the end of British slavery, the industrial and agricultural revolutions, Reform-age politics, the explosion of mass print, urbanization, globalizing trade, and fifty other things we might mention. How to deal with change itself was arguably his central theme. Consequently, he just may have something to say to us in our unsettled times.

Matt and Caroline remark in their introduction that Scott provides an insightful model for academics, having much to say about writing for a living and working like a scholar. Whether or not that’s a useful thought at the moment, I should acknowledge that the collection makes valuable contributions to scholarship—so much so that I will probably end up assigning some of the essays to my students. The book addresses diverse topics, ranging from Scott’s handling of space and time to his family’s role in shaping literary tourism, from his paratextual creativity to his surprising lessons for a world in climate crisis.

Matt himself writes about Scott’s Redgauntlet (1824)which is at once different from the rest of Scott’s novels (speculative, counterfactual, not strictly historical) and paradigmatic, in that it opens up a space of historical possibility, romance in its most hopeful sense, and therefore invites us to think the unthinkable. Offering the closing notes of the volume, Matt contends that climate change requires us to think in just this way. His essay thus captures the keynote of the book—the idea that Scott can help us bridge gaps between actual and possible worlds.

Now for a postscript, which should have been a preface:

People who pay attention to scholarship on the Romantic Period know that we’re passing through a rich season of commemorations. Daily, it seems, we’re marking the two hundredth anniversary of something or other—and, if we’re not, we’re generally remembering someone’s 250th birthday: William Wordsworth’s last year, Dorothy Wordsworth’s and Scott’s this year, Coleridge’s next year, and so on. Walter Scott at 250 participates in this larger trend of taking stock, asking how Romantic-era literature continues to resonate. However, it aims to do a bit more. Matt, Caroline, and their collaborators deserve thanks for inviting us to see not only how one writer from the past can help us grapple with present difficulties, but also how he might yet press us to imagine better futures.