Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Antinomian Reviewers: Hogg's Critique of Romantic-Era Magazine Culture in the Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Antinomian Reviewers: Hogg's Critique of Romantic-Era Magazine Culture in the Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Article excerpt

In recent years a number of historically minded critics have construed portions of James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a loosely allegorical expression of the author's uneasy and ungentle relationship with the print culture of Romantic-era Edinburgh, and especially with Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. (See Duncan, "Fanaticism" and Scott's Shadow; Fang 66-104; Mack; Richardson lxvii). This was the periodical that for some time gave that rural, working-class outsider a public voice but that later hijacked and travestied that same voice for the sake of its own pretentions to cultural prestige. My object is not to quarrel with these readings but rather to expand them in a new direction. What has largely been absent from previous attempts to read Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a coded account of Hogg's painfully ambivalent relationship with the great literary periodicals of his era is, on the one hand, something central to his novel--the specific doctrines of Antinomianism--and something definitional about magazines of Blackwood's ilk: the savagely partisan-political nature of their review-articles concerning contemporary literature. It is my contention that by viewing the former as an implicit critique of the latter, we will discover that Hogg's assessment of Romantic-era literary criticism is both wider and sharper than it has yet been credited as being. For while it is well known that in writing Justified Sinner Hogg was "taking a swing at his Tory friends and...persecutors in the Blackwood's group" (Campbell 181), it has not yet been appreciated that his most telling jab originated in the heretical religious tenets of his deluded protagonist, and that the blow was aimed squarely at the ideological extremism of the nation's cultural gatekeepers, both those he knew personally and those farther afield. As we shall see, in Hogg's hands Antinomianism becomes a metaphorical weapon by means of which he critiques two intimately related practices of Romantic periodicals: intemperate denunciations of the literary productions of those organs' perceived ideological foes, and shameless "puffing" of the works of their political allies and personal friends. When we remember that it was an allegorical work--the "Chaldee Manuscript"--that first brought Hogg to national attention, and that he was fond of touting the impact upon readers "of [his] celebrated allegories" (Letters 363, Miller 224), it should not surprise us that his most enduring text contains allegorical elements, or that recognizing them should help untangle some of Justified Sinner's notorious obstacles to coherent interpretation. When read in this light, Hogg's novel emerges as a rebus-like rendering of the ethical temptations that chronically beset writers of literary criticism at the dawn of mass-circulation journalism.

We must commence with a brief review of some familiar facts, the first among them being James Hogg's key role in shepherding (the pun is inevitable) Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine safely through its difficult birth in 1817. Its owner and publisher, William Blackwood, had wished to found a Tory periodical that would stand as a rival to the Whig-directed Edinburgh Review, but the first issue of his new venture proved unpopular with the public, and the pair of editors Blackwood originally engaged proved not to share his zealous Toryism (Schoenfield, British Periodicals 217-18). After intensifying disputes with Blackwood, these editors jumped ship in favor of a Whig publication and Blackwood hired in their places John Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart, talented if arrogant and choleric literary figures under whose leadership the magazine would eventually enjoy immense cultural influence. Hogg wrote a satirical sketch a clef about the contentious change of editorial personnel entitled "Translation of an Ancient Chaldee Manuscript" which, though it involved the infant magazine in several lawsuits, got it off to a magnificent start in terms of circulation numbers. …

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