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Reviewed by:
  • Marilyn Reizbaum
Margery McCulloch. The Novels of Neil M. Gunn: A Critical Study. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1987. 192 pp. $18.75.

To begin with, many thanks to Modern Fiction Studies for its characteristic attention to the work of and about writers outside the "mainstream" establishment of writing in English: in this case, Margery McCulloch's critical work on the obscure Scottish writer of some international reputation, Neil M. Gunn. Oxymoronic as that may sound, such contradictions (de-)limit the place of Scottish writers, particularly those of the twentieth century, who have been absorbed or, more often, rejected by the British literary establishment under whose "national" auspices they fall. Unfortunately, this particular critical work does not do enough to promote either the work of Gunn or a quite separate and living Scottish literature.

As the book jacket announces, McCulloch's is the "first full length critical study of all twenty of Gunn's novels" and follows on from a recent biography of Gunn by Frances Russell Hart and J. B. Pick (1981). The current critical exploration of the issues of canonicity and minority literature has contributed to the emergence of interest in writers such as Gunn, whose "international" reputation derives primarily from a literary award in his name given biennially to a fiction writer of international status (the last of these was awarded to Saul Bellow in 1978). And the interest from outside is concurrent with and perhaps in part responsible for the resurgence of critical attention and activity from within countries such as Scotland whose literary history has been subsumed and/or obscured by the dictates of a mainstream tradition. McCulloch's strategy for rectifying this historical problem is through a claim of universality—ironically, a literary strategy by which (as she herself later acknowledges, albeit indirectly) writers like Gunn have been excluded from the canon. Here is what she poses in the conclusion of her study: [End Page 796]

The problem for the critic is to determine to what extent Gunn's lack of success in his overt international-theme novels affects his right to be considered a writer of international stature. Would it be more just to describe him as an essentially Scottish writer, whose work is limited to national interest? Or is his achievement in his best work also of a universal, unparochial nature, despite its rootedness in the national context?

The problem for the reader who is interested in these questions is that the issue of "success" is not contextualized by an examination of the criteria for excellence or recognition; and even if one accepts the use of more traditional categories and the lack of a current critical context, it is never clear why the "international-theme novels" are in such terms less successful. McCulloch seems to accept uncritically the conventional opposition between parochial and accomplished, when, after all, the so-called "limitations" of a work of national interest that is of Scottish origin become the universal proportions of a work of English or American origin. Furthermore, she tries to argue that it is the Highland works (or works, as she puts it, of "essential Highland experience," valorized through a kind of romanticization of this "experience") that are most "universal." It would better serve McCulloch's subject to argue that novels like The Silver Darlings and Butcher's Broom give Gunn's work a certain Scottish particularity. Or perhaps it is her aims concerning the concepts of universality and difference that are finally unclear, making the study subject to a perpetual critical double-bind.

McCulloch's attention to Gunn's essays is very welcome here, although I wish there had been more. As McCulloch suggests, Gunn's own thoughts about Scottish history and his literary milieu provide an invaluable context for reading not only his own fiction but also the works of such contemporaries as Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir. And the essays and to some degree the novels provide, as McCulloch minimally and somewhat reductively notes, a link among Celtic peoples—historical, cultural, and literary resonances and similarities where traditionally differences between, for example, Scotland and Ireland are drawn. There is some attempt to take Gunn out of the Celtic context by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 796-797
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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