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

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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.

Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president who now hosts a radio show called America First, was banned from YouTube for repeatedly uploading audio from the rock band Imagine Dragons without copyright permission.

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