Walter Scott, Literary History, and the "Expressive" Tenets of Waverley Criticism

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"In joyous picturesqueness and fellow-feeling, freedom of eye and heart, or to say it in a word, in general healthiness of mind, these Novels prove Scott to have been amongst the foremost writers."

Thomas Carlyle, "The Amoral Scott"

There was no other author in the history of literature who played a more important role in shaping the nineteenth-century novel than Walter Scott (1771-1832). From the publication of Waverley, his first novel, in 1814 until long after his death, his historical novels exerted a power over prose discourse the extent of which is rarely recognized today. This importance derives in large measure from Scott's active formulation of a new mode of historical understanding, an understanding that, in the words of Ian Watt, accepted "the aims of economic individualism" and its "new attitude to society and its law" (95).[1]

Within the dimensions of the cultural shift of modernism, however, Scott's literary reputation suffered tremendously. Many recent studies of Scott have sought to redress this situation; works by such critics as Judith Wilt, Ina Ferris, and Ian Duncan have sought to reestablish him as one of the most seminal writers of the nineteenth century. But the question remains: if Scott is indeed one of the great authors of literary history, why has this resurrection been needed? What critical tenets were employed, consciously or unconsciously, to seal his fate as a second-rate writer for several generations?

Since around the year 1885 in particular Scott's novels have been viewed by critics and readers alike as little more than romantic and "nostalgic boy's adventures, origins of a tradition that descended to the underground of the popular press" (McMaster 1). As early as 1821, the critic Nassau Senior in the Quarterly Review cited most of these familiar criticisms in his survey of Scott's novels published up to that year: "the often sloppy prose, the confused plots, the historical mistakes, the involved and tedious beginnings, the constant re-creation, in book after book, of the same cast of characters" (qtd. in Raleigh 10).[2] Yet such early criticisms were "small voices amid the chorus of adulation for the Author of Waverley" (Waswo 2), for it was overwhelmingly felt that Scott's deficiencies were more than adequately compensated for by "the beauties" (Hadyn 7). Never before or since in Western culture, notes John Henry Raleigh in his study of Scott's meaning to Victorian readers, has "a writer been such a power in his own day and so negligible to posterity" (8).

As can be demonstrated, this meteoric fall is attributable to a modernist mode of criticism informed by certain canonized assumptions about "serious" fiction within some "great tradition" of the novel. The unfortunate result of this criticism was an assessment of Scott as an "unserious," romance writer who comes "out of a bad tradition" (Leavis 6).[3] It was the moralizing tendencies of early nineteenth-century considerations in particular that continue to subject the Waverley Novels to considerable deformation in early and mid-twentieth-century literary histories. Indeed, the "expressive" biases that were the implied premise of these ninetenth-century readings are latent precisely in that twentieth-century criticism that refers to Scott's "imaginative genius" and his exemplary ability to give voice to the "human nature" and "feelings" of his characters. As such, later assessments can be considered never to have moved beyond earlier simplifications. There is a line that can be drawn from the critic Francis Jeffrey's 1814 assertion that "the secret of [Scott's] success" is that he "is a person of genius" (79), through Carlyle's mid-century diatribes against the Waverley Novels' ethics, to Georg Lukacs's 1937 pronouncement that Scott's greatness can be located in his "imaginative" capacity to give "life" to "socio-historical types" (42). Such approaches are symptomatic of a consistent tendency to read Scott in terms of his ability to "express" a single meaning or "message," and it is precisely this tendency that was responsible for the whole climate of literary opinion that came to find Scott negligible. …