Devolving English Literature Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Devolving English Literature attempts to deconstruct the received literary history that posits an “English Literature” that somehow would include Scottish, Irish, and Australian elements within it. Crawford wishes to redirect critics and readers to the provincial aspects of literature, especially Scottish literature, that remain embedded in what is called “English Literature.” He is a professor of modern Scottish literature, and his major interest seems to be in restoring Scottish literature to a separate and honored place distinct from English literature, although he does deal with the provincial aspects of American literature and sees modernism as a more provincial and eclectic movement than has been realized by most critics. Some readers will have expectations of a different sort of book from the title; it might better have been called “The Presence of Scottish Literature in English Literature.”

Devolving English Literature discovers, as the first culprits in the creation of “English Literature” as a subject, certain Scots bent on improving culture during the eighteenth century. The teaching of Thomas Stevenson and Adam Smith, and later that of Hugh Blair, of university courses in “Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” was a precursor to courses in English literature. Before this, only the Greek and Roman classics were judged to be literary subjects worthy of study within a university. Now “English Literature” would be studied in Scottish universities—and later English and American universities—and it would include such classic English writers as William Shakespeare and Joseph Addison. The native writers in Scotland were to take their models and styles from approved texts included in the area of “English Literature.” There was to be no respectable Scottish literature but rather an Anglocentric one that would include Scottish works only if they conformed to “English” standards. Another aim of this group was to improve the culture of their native land by purging the spoken and written language of distinctively Scottish elements. Ambitious Scots were to remove any traces of “Scotticisms” and other signs of provinciality. Adam Smith was especially important in this area, since his own example of an “un-Scottish” style influenced many aspiring young Scots. These activities were attempts at “improvements” in the culture of Scotland; they are typical, Crawford suggests, of the cultural imperialism that drives out or subsumes native or provincial literature and language.

Crawford claims that the Scots also were responsible for creating “British Literature.” This is a reaction by Scottish writers to the lumping of their distinctively Scottish writing into an “English” literature. Crawford cites such writers as James Thomson, Tobias Smollett, James Boswell, and Robert Burns as being the main figures who undermined Anglocentric qualities in their poems and novels. James Thomson’s poem “The Seasons” affirmed Scottish ways by celebrating the romantic landscape of Scotland. This obviously points to the special glories of a land that had not earlier been seen as beautiful. More significantly, Thomson stressed the use of the term “Britain” in order to include the distinctly Scottish elements into a new and expanded culture. “And thus united BRITAIN BRITAIN make/ Intire, th’ imperial MISTRESS of the day.” “Britain” was no longer merely England but an amalgam that prominently featured Scotland. Scotland would not be buried under England but would become a significant part of an inclusive Britain.

The novels of Smollett go beyond Thomson and are especially interesting for their attack upon prejudice against all Scots and their Scottish ways. The characters who are prejudiced against Scottish manners and ways are portrayed negatively and finally exposed as inadequate inRoderick Random (1748) and especially in Humphry Clinker (1771). Crawford claims thatHumphry Clinker is “about” anti-Scottish prejudice on the part of the unthinking English. Crawford suggests that the union of characters of different nationality mirrors the union of England and Scotland. That political union, of course, created “Britain” as an entity.

Boswell, on the surface, would not seem to belong in this group, since he put aside his Scottishness in the presence of the formidable Samuel Johnson. Crawford claims, however, that Boswell defused the anti-Scottish prejudice of Johnson by showing how arbitrary and absurd it was. Crawford asserts this without much evidence or discussion, and many readers who are amused at Johnson’s quips about Scotland and the Scots will not be convinced. The “Britishness” of Boswell, according to Crawford, lies in his attempt to have “access” to England while preserving his Scottish culture.

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(The entire section is 1975 words.)