Ecclefechan and the Stars

Robert Crawford

  • The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect by George Davie
    Polygon, 283 pp, £17.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 948275 18 9

The university discipline we now call ‘English Literature’ is a Scottish invention. Though he had already given his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belies Lettres in Edinburgh, it was at Glasgow University in 1751 that Adam Smith became the first person to give an official university course in English that dealt with the technique and appreciation of modern writers in that language as well as in the Classical tongues. Hugh Blair, a Church of Scotland minister who from 1762 became Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University, was in effect the world’s first Professor of English Literature. He built his lectures on Smith’s work. Smith held that ‘we in this country are most of us very sensible that the perfection of language is very different from that we commonly speak in,’ and Blair’s ideal style was ‘without Scotticisms’. The enterprise of Smith and Blair was to enable the ‘provincial’ Scots to engage with the culture of England on that culture’s own ground. In their Glasgow and Edinburgh lecture rooms Smith and Blair were busy translating their audiences.

Andrew Hook has drawn attention to the widespread use of Blair’s Rhetoric in the United States. By the early 1760s, the Scotsman William Small was teaching Rhetoric and Belles Lettres to Jefferson at William and Mary. By 1768 John Witherspoon from the Laigh Kirk, Paisley, was basing his Princeton lectures on Blair’s Rhetoric. In 1781 Wither spoon coined the pejorative term ‘Americanism’, by analogy with ‘Scotticism’. Strong connections between Scottish and American cultures at this time included the development of English Studies because both countries were, in Bernard Bailyn’s terms, ‘England’s Cultural Provinces’ – full of provincials to be translated.

Yet something Scottish persisted. Smith’s interest in the collection and presentation of minute facts impressed one of his Glasgow auditors, James Boswell, whose marvellous accumulation. The Life of Samuel Johnson, is a major peak in the Scottish eclectic tradition. In Edinburgh, formulating the canon of the new university study of English Literature, Blair tried to inscribe a marked Scottish presence. But works such as the Ossianic poems, Home’s Douglas, Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd and Wilkie’s Epigoniad dropped away, and the emphasis that remained was almost exclusively on English (with Classical) texts and standards. Scottish literature, like all writing done outside England, was seen as an eccentric achievement, significant only when it could be assimilated to English cultural models. By the time we come to the mid-19th century and after, the period covered by Chris Baldick’s The Social Mission of English Criticism, university English Studies and London Oxbridge English cultural imperialism go blithely hand in hand.

This is a fruitful context in which to consider George Davie’s new book. Its pages contain in embryonic form a theory of Scottish culture which, when developed, has the power radically to reshape English Studies and to make sense of post-Enlightenment Scottish literature by tying it into the wider Scottish cultural tradition that produced thinkers like Hume and Smith, as well as later tech nological achievements such as the telephone and television. In Davie’s view, Scottish Studies becomes the study of a cultural tradition whose importance to the modern world is Periclean.

Davie’s book is hard to read. Its own dense eclecticism can be rebarbative, as if one were dealing with four books crammed into one. Davie is a professional philosopher, an ambitious Dundonian polymath who moves rapidly and sometimes too easily from interpretations of Hegel or Korzybski to the cultural politics of the Scottish Educational Journal in the 1920s, to the development of educational theory in Australia, to the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid. Sometimes the argument seems thin or muzzy; sometimes the reader gasps for air. But of the book’s stimulating power there can be no doubt. In Scotland that stimulation is already becoming intense, particularly in the 25th issue of Cencrastus, which prints a number of review essays reacting to Davie’s book along with a new article by Davie ‘On Hugh MacDiarmid’. Philosophers, historians and literary critics have begun either to build on or to erode Davie’s theses. Right or wrong, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect, like its 1961 predecessor The Democratic Intel led (recently reprinted by Edinburgh University Press), should have the virtue of being unignorable.

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