Kenneth McNeil. Scotland, Britain, Empire: Writing the Highlands, 1760-1860. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2007. viii + 228 pp. $41.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1047-5.
Richard B. Sher. The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland and America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. xxvi + 815 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-75252-5.
Reviewed by Bob Harris (Worcester College, University of Oxford)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2007)
Scotland in Print
These two books share one common theme at least--Scottish identity or identities--but ultimately pursue very different questions. It is Richard B. Sher's new book that is, by some measure, the more significant. Kenneth McNeil's speaks primarily (although by no means exclusively) to the concerns of literary specialists, and the historical content, if such a crude separation can be made, will be familiar to most historians of modern Scotland and Britain.
What makes The Enlightenment and the Book relatively unusual is that its focus is precisely on the books, rather than the texts they contained, which made the Scottish Enlightenment. Or rather, the focus is on the production of these books by booksellers as much as authors. Perhaps strangely, despite the wealth of scholarship on the Scottish Enlightenment, little attention has been devoted hitherto to this topic, except in a rather impressionistic fashion. This is indicative of how far specialists researching and writing on the Scottish Enlightenment have tended to pass over issues of reception and circulation in favour of more traditional approaches to intellectual history. Sher's new book takes us a long way in a different direction, although much work remains to be done on the circulation and readership of the central works of the Scottish Enlightenment.
So what do we learn? The answer is a great deal, for Sher offers an extremely erudite, richly documented and informative account of the publishing practices and networks which produced the books of the Scottish Enlightenment. His approach interweaves biography--there are compelling sketches of William Creech, Robert Burns's Edinburgh publisher, and William Strahan, the Scots-born London printer and later bookseller, as well as a host of much lesser individuals such as the hack-journalist Robert Heron--with systematic analysis of patterns of publishing. Along the way, he tells much about authorship in this period, and about the social and cultural forces which produced enlightenment in Scotland. Other important themes include the changing role and forms of literary patronage, and the balance between commercial and other motivations in authorship and publishing in this period. Two final chapters examine the reprinting of Scottish Enlightenment texts in, first, Ireland and, then, America, a process in which several émigré Scots played a very considerable role.
The significant findings and arguments made in the book are too numerous to list in detail here, so I will mention only a few of the more important. Firstly, Sher firmly rejects Roy Porter's notion of a "British enlightenment" which subsumed Scottish intellectual and cultural developments in the eighteenth century. Following a lead of Franco Venturi's, Sher argues that what was distinctive about the Scottish Enlightenment was precisely the number of books which gained national and international reputations for their authors. It was also this which most obviously distinguished the Enlightenment in England from the Enlightenment in Scotland. Equally importantly, the Scottish Enlightenment gained cohesiveness from its identification with a sense of Scottish nationhood, a patriotic, if not nationalist, dimension that was given further substance by the publishing networks which produced enlightenment conceived of in terms of books. These networks may have transcended national boundaries, joining London and Edinburgh in collaborative publishing, but they were forged by Scots in the two cities. In many ways, the real heroes of Sher's story are Andrew Millar and William Strahan who moved south to London in pursuit of fortune and prosperity and who established concerns which enabled Scottish Enlightenment writers to find a readership far wider than would have existed only in Scotland. Sher's point is partly how far these individuals retained a distinctively Scottish outlook, as reflected, in part, in their ways of doing business, but also in their patterns of sociability and their friendship and patronage of Scottish authors. Going south did not diminish their deep engagement and pride in Scottish culture and literary achievement.
Secondly, Sher presents a more complex picture of eighteenth-century publishing than has sometimes been provided by book historians. There is much to be gleaned from his pages about different modes of publishing in the British Isles in this period. In particular, Sher has in his sights the view, recently reiterated by William St. Clair, that copyright and battles over perpetual copyright provide an adequate framework for understanding developments in publishing before 1774, when the notion of perpetual copyright was undermined by a judgement in the House of Lords. Instead, what emerges on his account is how little impact this judgement had on the conditions of publishing. Across the eighteenth century there was an underlying opportunism among bookseller-publishers, but also an in-built tendency towards informal agreements about control of copyrights and the publishing of works. Nor can the Scottish and Irish book trades be characterized simply in terms of attempts to interlope in British and imperial markets through production of cheaper volumes. In both Dublin and London enlightenment publishing was more innovative and concerned with quality than such a portrayal would indicate.
Thirdly, publishing the Enlightenment brought very significant profits to both bookseller-publishers and authors. We have long known that Scottish Enlightenment authors took a very close interest in the publication of their works, indeed were preoccupied about it to a degree that seems in retrospect surprising. The rewards, however, could be very considerable indeed. As Sher declares of the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment at one point: "A number of them grew rich, while many others became comfortably well off" (p. 258). On the other hand, publishing the Enlightenment was not solely about the search for profit, either on the part of authors or booksellers. The motivations which drove the Enlightenment were more various and at times high minded. For the booksellers, desire for personal fame, prestige, status, feelings of Scottish national pride, as well as concern for their authors were all present, as was a commitment to their crucial role in cultural improvement.
Fourthly, in placing relations between Scottish authors and their publishers at the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, Sher is making an argument about why as well as when it flourished, and when and why it ended. The Scottish Enlightenment flourished in the second half of the eighteenth century because of the strength of the personal and national connections between Scottish writers and leading London publishers and their Edinburgh collaborators. It was this world which would dissolve at the end of the century, to be replaced, eventually, by a different one presided over by Archibald Constable, publisher and collaborator of Sir Walter Scott. The London-Edinburgh axis ruptured, and with it came the collapse of the publishing conditions which had underpinned the Scottish Enlightenment.
At the heart of Sher's study is a database which comprises the publishing histories of 360 works, written by 115 authors, which represent the achievement of the Scottish Enlightenment and which were published between 1746 and 1800. This is reproduced as one of several very useful tables at the end of the book. Sher is well aware that his methodology is likely to attract criticism regarding how the Scottish Enlightenment is here being defined, but his rejoinder to the anticipated criticisms is boldly stated: "Although they did not comprise the whole of the Scottish Enlightenment ... these books constituted its most tangible and influential representation and were, taken collectively, the chief vehicle for the Scottish manifestation of Enlightenment print culture that forms the principal subject of this book" (p. 81). In developing this case, and examining how these books came to be published, Sher brings to bear an enormous wealth learning gained through years of painstaking archival research. It is a remarkable achievement which should become required reading for eighteenth-century British cultural and social historians.
McNeil's enquiry is a more modest one and in many ways also more familiar, certainly in broad outline. Exploiting a post-colonial perspective, he explores the different ways in which the Highlands were inscribed in notions of Scottish and British national identity from the later eighteenth century to the later nineteenth century. His discussion ranges across literary and non-literary texts, many of them already well known, and episodes such as the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The thread which connects all is a critique of views which see in "Highlandism" simply the "romanticization" of the Highlands and the source of the myth of the Highlands as the locus of a timeless traditionalism (p. 86). For McNeil, rather this period sees the projection on to the Highlands of more subtle, complex and on occasion contradictory messages about changes to identities and society, which, in turn, reflect the high level of Highland participation and complicity in a process of imperial and commercial expansion which accelerated and deepened from the later eighteenth century. Indeed, it is in part this complicity contemporaneous with the transformation of Highland society which made, in McNeil's view, the Highlands such a fruitful site for exploration of ideas about nation and empire. This was also, moreover, a function of how the Highlands could act at one and the same time as a site and symbol of "belonging" and "otherness."
This reader is not a literary specialist, and the frequent references to other literary and cultural critics and occasionally convoluted and strained vocabulary may not be to the taste of all who will be interested in this volume. There are several odd comments and factual mistakes about historical background which do not engender entire confidence in the analysis. Patrick Sellar, the duke of Sutherland's controversial and much detested factor, appears as Peter Sellar, for example (p. 111). Similarly a reference to "anti-union radicals" in Glasgow around the time of the '15 seems to muddy the historical waters (p. 58). McNeil's basic case--that responses to the Highlands were more interesting and complex than emphasis on simply conservative myth-making sometimes implies--is, nevertheless, persuasively argued. The book also contains interesting reflections on, firstly, the different ways in which the experience of empire worked to blend notions of Scottish and British identity in the nineteenth century and, secondly, the place of the Highland soldier in constructions of Victorian masculinity and narratives of war.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Bob Harris. Review of McNeil, Kenneth, Scotland, Britain, Empire: Writing the Highlands, 1760-1860 and
Sher, Richard B., The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland and America.
H-Albion, H-Net Reviews.
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