No Comment — July 29, 2007, 11:11 am

How Walter Scott Started the American Civil War

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)
George William Curtis, The Editor’s Easy Chair, Harper’s, Mar. 1891

A week ago this morning, I was standing in the magnificent library of Walter Scott’s baronial home, Abbotsford. It’s one of those early Victorian Gothic monstrocities, complete with moss-covered stone, a turret, battlements and a (now dry) moat, with a commanding view of the Tweed River. The library is an especially fine room with a magnificently carved wooden ceiling, imitating the stone tracery at the Chapel of Rosslyn which is now the northern most point of pilgrimage of all the DaVinci Code fanatics. And it struck me, looking at all the assembled Scott ephemera: This is the man who started the American Civil War!

No doubt you learned in grade school that it started at Fort Sumter and that slavery and states’ rights had something to do with it. But no. The Civil War sprang with fully loaded double-barrels from the pages of Ivanhoe. No doubt about it. We have it on the best authority: Harper’s in the decades right after the war.

I used to wonder: is there anything redeeming to be said about Walter Scott? All those gallant knights. The historical vision that is never, actually, very historic? The pride of homeland? The chauvinism? The longing for the golden past, lost in the industrial age? Walter Scott is a Romantic, of course. He was wildly popular. There were the intellectual Romantics, like Novalis, Tieck and the Schlegels, and then there is the Romantic of trivial sentimentality and muddled thinking: Sir Walter Scott.

Standing in the man’s house, I thought it would violate the rules of hospitality to trash him. So I went ahead and posted the only thing by Scott that ever struck me as halfway amusing—the passage about lawyers and history that appears midway in Guy Mannering, an otherwise imminently forgettable novel.

But the charge laid at Scott’s doorstep isn’t so absurd as it might at first seem. Here’s how my favorite American writer makes the case. Harper’s own Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi:

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner–or Southron, according to Sir Walter’s starchier way of phrasing it– would be wholly modern, in place of modern and medieval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter’s influence than to that of any other thing or person.

One may observe, by one or two signs, how deeply that influence penetrated, and how strongly it holds. If one take up a Northern or Southern literary periodical of forty or fifty years ago, he will find it filled with wordy, windy, flowery ‘eloquence,’ romanticism, sentimentality–all imitated from Sir Walter, and sufficiently badly done, too– innocent travesties of his style and methods, in fact. This sort of literature being the fashion in both sections of the country, there was opportunity for the fairest competition; and as a consequence, the South was able to show as many well-known literary names, proportioned to population, as the North could.

But a change has come, and there is no opportunity now for a fair competition between North and South. For the North has thrown out that old inflated style, whereas the Southern writer still clings to it–clings to it and has a restricted market for his wares, as a consequence. There is as much literary talent in the South, now, as ever there was, of course; but its work can gain but slight currency under present conditions; the authors write for the past, not the present; they use obsolete forms, and a dead language. But when a Southerner of genius writes modern English, his book goes upon crutches no longer, but upon wings; and they carry it swiftly all about America and England, and through the great English reprint publishing houses of Germany– as witness the experience of Mr. Cable and Uncle Remus, two of the very few Southern authors who do not write in the Southern style. Instead of three or four widely-known literary names, the South ought to have a dozen or two–and will have them when Sir Walter’s time is out.

So there you have the Bill of Indictment. Walter Scott, the wrecker of culture—the man who substitutes mushy illusion for sober reason. Walter Scott, the man who left a whole generation of Southerners thinking about the idyllic life and plantation agriculture, with its natural order of aristocracy and slavery. Walter Scott, the enemy of modernity, of technology and democracy. Is Twain off his rocker? Is he overplaying things for comic effect? Well, certainly he is. But as with much of Twain’s marvelous irony, it’s effective because there is so much truth in it. The Southerners did warp themselves into something very strange, both before the Civil War and in the decades afterwards. They embraced a vision of a world that never was: a world of a White southern gentility and aristocracy, built on the backs of a vile and brutish institution that they would wish into the margins. And Walter Scott stoked those fires. My first encounted with Scott came with a complete set of the Waverley novels, musty and Victorian, handed down from one generation of aspiring Southerners to the next. For the Southern culture that emerged early in the nineteenth century, Walter Scott was literature. Indeed, there wasn’t much else.

But Twain’s sentence is not half so damning as that of Harper’s editor-in-chief George William Curtis in the March 1891 edition. Curtis, one of the titans of the Republican party, and a speechwriter to several Republican presidents or presidential candidates, delivers a judgment based on a review of Scott’s Journal. He starts like I did in that strange pile at Abbotsford which is so close to Scott’s character—and particularly the irrational, imprudent part of it. Scott took out an enormous loan to buy and built this monstrocity, and it left him in financial peril throughout his life. But Curtis turns quickly to Thomas Carlyle, who was born and lived, like Scott, within a stone’s throw of the English frontier, but has come to reflect the essence of the Scottish character:

Whoever reads this Journal, as he lays it down, should take up Carlyle’s article on Scott published in the Westminster Review when Lockhart’s Life appeared. It is the estimate of the great Scotchman by the greatest Scotchman who followed him, and who belonged to the new era as distinctively as Scott to the old. There is no writing of Carlyle’s in which his human feeling and sympathy are more tenderly and beautifully expressed; and it is the more striking because the review is the first significant sign of the reaction against Scott. It is the judgment of a radical, inquisitive, serious, introspective age, to which Scott could seem only a pleasant minstrel and storyteller who had no “message to deliver.”

A man like Carlyle, who held that men had no business, in an earnest world, to be drivelling about happiness, and who laughed with Titanic scorn at those who, like the old smoke-jack, were always whining, “Once I was hap-hap-happy, now I am meeserable,” could find in Scott only a superficial and healthy good-nature, a childlike and unquestioning acquiescence in shallow and formal answers to the vital problems of life and destiny that ought to shake men’s souls with the effort of adequate explanation. Tales of chivalry and romances of the border, historical pictures of feudal England and the Crusades, were only lullabies of an indolent and careless age–sugar-candy for children, not strong meat for men. Confronted with the question, was Scott a great man? Carlyle, kindly, reluctantly, regretfully, answers, “he was a strong and healthy man.”

But what travail of the soul does he soothe? what in ward pain does he allay? what spiritual thirst assuage? Shakespeare drops immortal balm upon the weary heart of man; Dante speaks to his inner want; Goethe mirrors the unrest and the aspiration of an intellectual age. But Scott, says Carlyle, tells romantic or touching tales of costume and manners; his figures are quaint clothes, not persons; he never touches the real springs of life.

A very harsh, and very fair assessment. Scott does not belong to the world of great literature. He is the forerunner of the Harlequin romance, what my old professors in Germany would have called Trivialliteratur. By putting Scott on a pedestal, far nobler and greater culture and values were swept away. Twain is correct on this point, and Curtis feels it too. It’s the values of the American Revolution that got pushed to the side.

No, Scott didn’t man the batteries that fired on Fort Sumter. He did far worse than that.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2020

Trumpism After Trump

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My Gang Is Jesus”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Cancer Chair

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Birds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Skinning Tree

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Interpretation of Dreams

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dearest Lizzie

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Trumpism After Trump·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The city was not beautiful; no one made that claim for it. At the height of summer, people in suits, shellacked by the sun, moved like harassed insects to avoid the concentrated light. There was a civil war–like fracture in America—the president had said so—but little of it showed in the capital. Everyone was polite and smooth in their exchanges. The corridor between Dupont Circle and Georgetown was like the dream of Yugoslav planners: long blocks of uniform earth-toned buildings that made the classical edifices of the Hill seem the residue of ancestors straining for pedigree. Bunting, starched and perfectly ruffled in red-white-and-blue fans, hung everywhere—from air conditioners, from gutters, from statues of dead revolutionaries. Coming from Berlin, where the manual laborers are white, I felt as though I was entering the heart of a caste civilization. Untouchables in hard hats drilled into sidewalks, carried pylons, and ate lunch from metal boxes, while waiters in restaurants complimented old respectable bobbing heads on how well they were progressing with their rib eyes and iceberg wedges.

I had come to Washington to witness either the birth of an ideology or what may turn out to be the passing of a kidney stone through the Republican Party. There was a new movement afoot: National Conservatives, they called themselves, and they were gathering here, at the Ritz-Carlton, at 22nd Street and M. Disparate tribes had posted up for the potlatch: reformacons, blood-and-soilers, curious liberal nationalists, “Austrians,” repentant neocons, evangelical Christians, corporate raiders, cattle ranchers, Silicon Valley dissidents, Buckleyites, Straussians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Tories, dark-web spiders, tradcons, Lone Conservatives, Fed-Socs, Young Republicans, Reaganites in amber. Most straddled more than one category.

Article
The Cancer Chair·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The second-worst thing about cancer chairs is that they are attached to televisions. Someone somewhere is always at war with silence. It’s impossible to read, so I answer email, or watch some cop drama on my computer, or, if it seems unavoidable, explore the lives of my nurses. A trip to Cozumel with old girlfriends, a costume party with political overtones, an advanced degree on the internet: they’re all the same, these lives, which is to say that the nurses tell me nothing, perhaps because amid the din and pain it’s impossible to say anything of substance, or perhaps because they know that nothing is precisely what we both expect. It’s the very currency of the place. Perhaps they are being excruciatingly candid.

There is a cancer camaraderie I’ve never felt. That I find inimical, in fact. Along with the official optimism that percolates out of pamphlets, the milestone celebrations that seem aimed at children, the lemonade people squeeze out of their tumors. My stoniness has not always served me well. Among the cancer staff, there is special affection for the jocular sufferer, the one who makes light of lousy bowel movements and extols the spiritual tonic of neuropathy. And why not? Spend your waking life in hell, and you too might cherish the soul who’d learned to praise the flames. I can’t do it. I’m not chipper by nature, and just hearing the word cancer makes me feel like I’m wearing a welder’s mask.

Article
“My Gang Is Jesus”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Demétrio Martins was ready to preach, he pushed a joystick that angled the seat of his wheelchair forward, slowly lifting him to a standing position. Restraints held his body upright. His atrophied right arm lay on an armrest, and with his left hand, he put a microphone to his lips. “Proverbs, chapter fourteen, verse twelve,” he said. “ ‘There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is . . .’ ”

The congregation finished: “ ‘Death.’ ”

The Assembly of God True Grapevine was little more than a fluorescent-lit room wedged between a bar and an empty lot in Jacaré, a poor neighborhood on Rio de Janeiro’s north side. A few dozen people sat in the rows of plastic lawn chairs that served as pews, while shuddering wall fans circulated hot air. The congregation was largely female; of the few men in attendance, most wore collared shirts and old leather shoes. Now and then, Martins veered from Portuguese into celestial tongues. People rose from their seats, thrust their hands into the air, and shouted, “Hallelujah!”

Article
The Birds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On December 7, 2016, a drone departed from an Amazon warehouse in the United Kingdom, ascended to an altitude of four hundred feet, and flew to a nearby farm. There it glided down to the front lawn and released from its clutches a small box containing an Amazon streaming device and a bag of popcorn. This was the first successful flight of Prime Air, Amazon’s drone delivery program. If instituted as a regular service, it would slash the costs of “last-mile delivery,” the shortest and most expensive leg of a package’s journey from warehouse to doorstep. Drones don’t get into fender benders, don’t hit rush-hour traffic, and don’t need humans to accompany them, all of which, Amazon says, could enable it to offer thirty-minute delivery for up to 90 percent of domestic shipments while also reducing carbon emissions. After years of testing, Amazon wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration last summer to ask for permission to conduct limited commercial deliveries with its drones, attaching this diagram to show how the system would work. (Amazon insisted that we note that the diagram is not to scale.) Amazon is not the only company working toward such an automated future—­UPS, FedEx, Uber, and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have similar programs—­but its plans offer the most detailed vision of what seems to be an impending reality, one in which parce­l-toting drones are a constant presence in the sky, doing much more than just delivering popcorn.

Article
The Skinning Tree·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Every year in Lusk, Wyoming, during the second week of July, locals gather to reenact a day in 1849 when members of a nearby band of Sioux are said to have skinned a white man alive. None of the actors are Native American. The white participants dress up like Indians and redden their skin with body paint made from iron ore.

The town prepares all year, and the performance, The Legend of Rawhide, has a cast and crew of hundreds, almost all local volunteers, including elementary school children. There are six generations of Rawhide actors in one family; three or four generations seems to be the average. The show is performed twice, on Friday and Saturday night.

The plot is based on an event that, as local legend has it, occurred fifteen miles south of Lusk, in Rawhide Buttes. It goes like this: Clyde Pickett is traveling with a wagon train to California. He tells the other Pioneers: “The only good Injun’s a dead Injun.” Clyde loves Kate Farley, and to impress her, he shoots the first Indian he sees, who happens to be an Indian Princess. The Indians approach the Pioneers and ask that the murderer give himself up. Clyde won’t admit he did it. The Indians attack the wagon train and, eventually, Clyde surrenders. The Indians tie Clyde to the Skinning Tree and flay him alive. Later, Kate retrieves her dead lover’s body and the wagon train continues west.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A decorated veteran of the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq had his prosthetic limbs repossessed from his home in Mississippi when the VA declined to pay for them.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today