Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, 1802-1834

By Barton Swaim | Go to book overview

Conclusion: Scottish Men of Letters
and the New Public Sphere

IN HIS 1856 ESSAY “EDINBURGH AN AGE AGO,” HUGH MILLER OBSERVED that the city’s golden age had ceased “within the last quarter century,” which is to say some time in the 1830s. Suggesting an explanation, Miller proposed that the preeminence then increasingly accorded to the daily newspaper, and the corresponding demotion of “the bulky quarterly,” had worked against a country that was too poor and unpopulated to support a daily newspaper capable of competing with the London papers. “For the highest periodic Literature London has, of consequence, become the only true mart; and the Scotchman who would live by it must of necessity make the great metropolis his home.”1 Miller was right to suppose that Scotland had achieved cultural ascendancy in large part through periodical literature, and his claim that Scottish dominance in that field had expired not because the Scots had lost their touch but because they were forced for economic reasons to emigrate to London has a great deal of truth in it, too. Henry Cockburn said much the same in his 1852 biography of Jeffrey. At the height of the Edinburgh Review’s preeminence, he lamented,

The whole country had not begun to be absorbed in the ocean of
London…. The operation of the commercial principle which tempts all
superiority to try its fortune in the greatest accessible market, is perhaps
irresistible; but anything is surely to be lamented which annihilates local in-
tellect, and degrades the provincial spheres which intellect and its conse-
quences alone can adorn…. The city has advantages, including its being
the capital of Scotland, its old reputation, and its external beauties, which
have enabled it, in a certain degree, to resist the centralising tendency, and
have hitherto always supplied it with a succession of eminent men. But now,
that London is at our door, how precarious is our hold of them, and how
many we have lost.2

There is a hint of strained pathos in this, to be sure. Still it is true that whereas throughout the eighteenth century the great majority of Scot-

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