When the noted scholar Edgar Johnson published his biography of Sir Walter Scott in 1970, he chose for his title Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. Recognizing that the subtitle refers to an epithet Scott inherited in his own day, one might still think that Johnson was being unfair to modern readers, for Scott has not been “unknown” for some time. On the other hand, considering the educated public’s familiarity with the bulk of Scott’s works, Johnson might just as well have selected for his subtitle “The Great Unread.” In the 1980’s, only a modest number of people can claim to know many of Scott’s works, though many have read (or skimmed through) at least one. High school students plod through Ivanhoe (1820). College undergraduates who enroll in novel courses take home from the bookstore copies of Waverley (1814) or The Heart of Midlothian (1818). An occasional enterprising graduate student makes his or her way through Rob Roy (1818), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), or Redgauntlet (1824).
From crib sheets and critical surveys, students (and teachers, in many cases) learn that, in addition to being a competent poet whose verse narratives were popular until Lord Byron began writing in the genre, Scott wrote a series of works now known as the Waverley novels. The student may also learn from a secondary source that Scott was “prolific” and that he was the father of the historical novel.
A trip through the library shelves gives one a hint as to why, in today’s fast-paced world, in which best-selling fiction often runs to less than three-hundred pages, Scott remains largely the property of the academic community. Forty-eight volumes, neatly arranged and often covered with a uniform coating of library dust, bear the Waverley imprint and the gold-lettered Scott on their spines.
It may be hard to imagine that, once upon a time, Sir Walter Scott was the most widely read novelist in the world, his works the standard against which others’ novels were judged. Taste in fiction changes rapidly, however; only a scant thirty years after he died, Scott was dubbed “irresponsible” by the young Henry James, and as the art of fiction became more sophisticated, Scott became less a “must-be-read” figure.
The popularity of the form which Scott created did not diminish. Historical novels appeared in abundance throughout the nineteenth century; a turn-of-the-century scholarly study reviewed almost three thousand of them. With academic interest in the form itself taking precedence over attention to individual works, Scott’s novels became a touchstone for evaluative, or genre, criticism. In ways curiously (if somewhat perversely) reminiscent of Aristotle and the neoclassical critics, literary analysts turned to Scott’s works to discover the “elements” of the “true” historical novel. How far removed from the present did the action of the novel have to be to merit the term “historical”? What proportion of real-life characters had to inhabit the pages? How closely must the events of the fiction parallel history? In Scott, the critics found answers, usually with little regard to the artistry of the Waverley novels themselves.
It is no surprise, then, that the modern scholar who chooses to write about Sir Walter Scott’s works faces a task both easy and difficult. There is no lack of materials: In addition to the forty-eight volumes of the Waverley collection, there are about a dozen volumes of verse. (By contrast, James Joyce, one of the most intensely studied twentieth century figures, produced only four major works in his lifetime.) Certainly, someone who really wants to write about Scott’s work can find an angle that has not been used before on one or more of the lesser-read novels or poems. That seems possible even in the face of a substantial body of criticism, which includes both individual monographs and shorter studies numbering in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. If one wishes to say something worthwhile about Scott,...
(The entire section is 2,563 words.)