James Hogg (1770 - 1835)
Scottish poet, novelist, short story and song writer, journalist, editor, playwright, and essayist.
A nearly illiterate shepherd until the age of eighteen, Hogg became a prolific writer of poetry, ballads, songs, short stories, and historical narratives who was ranked among Scottish writers only below Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. He established a persona as the "Ettrick Shepherd," a rustic and provincial poet, and gained fame through his association with the influential Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Yet that reputation declined after his death, and a century later he was remembered, if at all, only for an unconventional novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), which during his life had been dismissed as an obtuse satire on Christian fanaticism. Featuring Gothic and supernatural elements, including a schizophrenic narrator and a psychological double/devil figure, as well as proto-modern narrative complexity, the work has been rediscovered by modern critics who have come to view it as a masterpiece of prose fiction. In recent years, the revival of Scottish nationalism has led to new interest in Hogg and the reprinting of his other works as well. Despite his many imitations of Burns and Scott, the pieces that utilize the supernatural folk traditions represent Hogg's best achievements and also provide the most interest for modern readers. Ghosts, both real and explained, appear regularly in Hogg's works, as do less familiar creatures: brownies, fairies, kelpies, and wraiths. Critics continue to reevaluate Hogg's work and find much to recommend in it, showing how the author uses the occult for purposes other than mere shock and integrates his own humor and folk wisdom with strange and lively narratives to produce highly moral, extremely entertaining tales.
Born to a pious tenant farmer in 1770, Hogg spent his early life as a shepherd in the Ettrick hills of Scotland following his family's bankruptcy in 1777. With minimal formal schooling, he taught himself to read using the only book available, a Bible, while his early interest in literature was founded on the Scottish oral tradition of ballads, songs, and fairy tales that were recited to him by his mother. As his self-education continued in his late teens, Hogg began to read the great works of English and Scottish literature and composed his first pieces of poetry, including verses imitative of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and others. By 1802 he had met Sir Walter Scott as the famous writer was collecting folk ballads for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Hogg later read the work and, largely unimpressed with its quality, determined to compose superior verse on the same subject. He subsequently sent several poems to Scott, both his own original ballads and adaptations of those his mother had taught him. Hogg's poetic abilities and his knowledge of Scottish lore impressed Scott, and in the following years a friendship grew between the two men that had an important influence on Hogg's career. Hogg's writings of this period appeared in his 1807 collection, The Mountain Bard: Consisting of Ballads and Songs, Founded on Facts and Legendary Tales.
In February of 1810, after Hogg had lost two farms due to lack of funds, he departed the pastoral tranquility of Ettrick for several years and moved to Edinburgh. His weekly periodical, The Spy, containing articles, poems, and tales mostly written by Hogg himself, was published between 1810 and 1811, but collapsed following the printing of a particularly scandalous story. Meanwhile, Hogg began crafting his literary persona as the "Ettrick Shepherd," a self-taught poet of provincial Scotland. He contributed poetry and prose to Scottish literary magazines and established himself as a national literary figure with his collection The Queen's Wake in 1813. The parodies of The Poetic Mirror; or, The Living Bards of Britain (1816) delighted audiences and maintained Hogg's popularity, though many of his other works of this period were ignored or denigrated by contemporary critics. In 1817 Hogg began a successful relationship with the newly founded Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, which published the collaborative "Translation from an Ancient Chaldee MS." in October of that year. Coauthored with John Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart, the anonymous satire written in biblical form lampooned prominent Edinburgh Whigs and created a stir in the city. By 1820 Hogg had married and returned to rural life, retreating to his Altrive farm near Yarrow. The sales of his 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner proved discouraging, and Hogg's writings of the subsequent period were frequently ignored or panned by his contemporaries, though he remained a recognizable figure in Scottish literary circles. His reminiscences of a lifelong friendship, Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott, appeared in 1834 and capitalized on interest in Scotland's most popular writer, but his later collection of short stories, Tales of the Wars of Montrose (1835), was a failure. Hogg died in November of 1835 after a prolonged illness and was buried in Ettrick.
With few exceptions, Hogg's writings about the occult and paranormal are acknowledged to be his best. His attitude toward the supernatural is ambivalent: his ancestors believed fully in the existence of creatures from another level of reality, and Hogg constantly shifts between providing rational explanations of strange events and presenting them without comment—a technique that effectively increases the suspense. He recognized that religious faith, like superstition, demands the acceptance of things unseen, and although he was a devout Presbyterian, he saw no inconsistency in maintaining beliefs in both fairy lore and Christianity.
In the poem "Superstition" (1815), Hogg laments that "gone is [Superstition's] mysterious dignity, / And true Devotion wanes away with her." Supernatural creatures, he says, not only teach the necessity of accepting the unseen but also fill guilty hearts with dread and make known their dark deeds. Hogg's fiction features various supernatural beings, from conventional ghosts to fairies. "The Barber of Duncow" (1831), one of his best ghost stories, tells how a spirit reveals to a new bride her husband's profligate past. After the wife disappears, her ghost—with throat nearly severed—leads villagers to her corpse, and when the husband touches the body, it begins to bleed profusely. Other tales depict more unusual supernatural creatures, those found in the folklore with which Hogg was familiar such as wraiths, fairies, and brownies. In "Adam Bell" (1811), some servants, having seen the apparition of their missing master, learn that a wraith appearing in daylight prognosticated very long life. In "The Wool-Gatherer" (1811), a young shepherd, Barnaby, whiles away a journey by telling the heroine some fine ghost stories. His seriousness provokes her to ask if he truly believes in such events. He believes in them, he says, a much as he believes in the gospels; he believes in the apparitions that warn of death, that save life, and discover guilt. Brownies figure in two of Hogg's best works, the historical novel The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818), which mixes legends of a preternatural creature with the efforts of several defeated revolutionaries to hide from political and religious persecution in the hills and farmlands of Scotland, and the story "The Brownie of the Black Haggs" (1828). Witches appear in the entertaining novel The Three Perils of Man (1822) and the story "The Hunt of Eildon" (1818).
In his poems, too, Hogg writes extensively of otherworldly creatures. In "Lyttil Pynkie" (1831), a beautiful elf-girl begins a wild dance that causes the death of the evil Baron and his profligate retainers; at the end, she enables the good priest who has come to exorcise her to see clearly the invisible evil at work throughout the world. The Pilgrims of the Sun (1815), Hogg's most ambitious poem, combines an allegorical and philosophical journey through the universe with an effective ghost story, while "Kilmeny" (1813), often praised as Hogg's best lyric, deals with the visit of the purest maiden on earth to Fairyland—a conjunction of the fairy and Christian paradises—from which she returns to recount what she has seen. Hogg's comic poem "The Witch of Fife" (1813) presents a pleasure-loving old man who finds himself married to a witch, who later saves him as he is about to be burned at the stake.
Hogg's acknowledged masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is more overtly religious than his other works and rather than using supernatural creatures presents supernatural events that emphasize terror and evil. The figure alluded to in the title is Robert Wringhim Colwan, the illegitimate son of a reverend, who is brought up as an Antinomian Calvinist and thus believes himself a member of God's elect—and therefore assured of divine salvation regardless of his sins in life. After the strange disappearance of his elder brother, Robert meets a mysterious individual, Gil-Martin, who encourages him to commit acts of violence against the "ungodly," culminating in several murders and Robert's own suicide. The novel features a dual narrative, first that of the deluded and possibly schizophrenic "sinner," followed by the apparently objective account of the work's fictional editor who had purportedly discovered Robert's memoirs after his body was exhumed some one hundred years later. The work, which explores questions about morality, religion, psychology, and the demonic, works up to a terrifying climax, and some critics have claimed that the character of Gil-Martin is one of the most convincing representations of the power of evil in literature.
Hogg was a prolific writer who had enjoyed renown in his day, yet after his death and until the mid-twentieth century most of his work was ignored by commentators. Many of Hogg's short poems and tales were written purely to turn a profit, and these hastily composed works are generally regarded as deeply flawed and of little merit. But even his best writings, much appreciated by his contemporaries who enjoyed his celebrations of Scottish rural scenes and superstitions as well as his imitations of ancient Scottish ballads, generated little critical interest after his death. Those who read his work generally found his plots inadequate, his endings haphazard, and his poetry poorly crafted. A turning point in Hogg's critical reputation occurred in the 1920s when André Gide (see Further Reading) "rediscovered" Hogg's novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, recognizing it as a significant work of world literature and as Hogg's masterpiece. Gide praised Hogg's depiction of the supernatural side of faith and the work's moral and religious effects. Since Gide's comments, numerous scholars have studied the novel and praised its sophisticated narrative technique, psychological complexity, and deeply ironic and ambivalent elements. Critics have begun to investigate the author's other neglected writings as well, and some have shown how the supernatural informs nearly all of the writer's best work. They have pointed out how it achieves its effects through the tension of belief and unbelief rather than through gratuitous horror and shows that supernatural events should not be ignored because the wonders of the invisible world reveal the moral universe. Critics acknowledge that much of Hogg's writing is ordinary and uninteresting, but his best work is enjoying renewed attention and gaining stature as some of the most original writing from the nineteenth century in its depiction of the tension between things of this world and those of other realms.