Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1251

The Scottish Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century represented a remarkable efflorescence of cultural activity. Among its prominent contributors were the chemist Joseph Black; his close friend, the geologist James Hutton; Hutton’s followers, John Playfair and James Hall; the economist Adam Smith; the historian William Robertson; the philosopher Adam Ferguson; and the portrait painter who preserved likenesses of them all, Henry Raeburn. However, for all this talent in other disciplines, imaginative writers were slow to appear on the Scottish scene. The few notable exceptions included the forger of the Osian poems, James Macpherson, as well as the rhetorical critic Hugh Blair. Another great exception was Tobias Smollett, but he made his career largely in England.

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Philosophers, a term that then included scientists, tended to find more ready access to print culture than did literary practitioners, but by the later eighteenth century these philosophers had been followed by a remarkable group of literary lawyers, who brought to writing the same critical skills that their profession required. Henry Mackenzie was one such lawyer. Through most of his life, Mackenzie was the most prominent arbiter of literary opinion in Edinburgh. He championed the dialect poetry of Robert Burns, for example, and he strongly encouraged the early literary efforts of Sir Walter Scott, also a lawyer, who dedicated his first novel, Waverley: Or, ’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), to Mackenzie. Highly regarded as a critic, editor, poet, and playwright, Mackenzie wrote many essays for literary periodicals, was active in the Highland Society, and oversaw the multidisciplinary Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh when they appeared in 1785. A hardheaded, practical opportunist, he had nothing in common with the hero of his most famous book.

The Man of Feeling, a short and fragmentary novel of fewer than one hundred pages, is the work for which Mackenzie is best remembered. Though often cited as the quintessential sentimental novel, and seemingly a reflection of its times, The Man of Feeling remained in manuscript for several years. When it was finally published, it became extremely popular. Mackenzie went on to write two more novels. Of these, The Man of the World (1773) was intended to be a contrastive sequel to The Man of Feeling. Its title character, appropriately named Sindall, was as iniquitous as Harley was good. Mackenzie’s third novel, Julia de Roubigné (1777), was strongly influenced by Mackenzie’s theatrical aspirations. In it, he attempted to move from melodrama into genuine tragedy. Though little known by modern readers, Julia de Roubigné is often considered Mackenzie’s best work. It is indebted to a novel with a similar title, Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters, 1761; also as Julie: Or, The New Eloise, 1968; better known as The New Héloïse), by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

As a novelist, Mackenzie belongs to an intermediate period in the history of the form. His three works came after the contributions of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Smollett earlier in the eighteenth century but before the advent of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott early in the nineteenth century. He may be a lesser figure than any of these, but he is significant nevertheless. Mackenzie’s experimentation with the form of the novel owed something to Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767; commonly known as Tristram Shandy), which is, in addition to its other qualities, an outrageous parody of the structural perfection achieved by Fielding. The tone of The Man of Feeling , however, was different from those of the works of either Sterne or Fielding, both of whom believed in ironic detachment. Sterne also favored a...

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