1. Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Modernism
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9 CHAPTER ONE Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Modernism Morag Shiach ‘What’s wrong with the other moderns is the lack of purpose in their infernal books.’ 1 This chapter provides a distinctive critical and historical framework for understanding key linguistic, stylistic and formal elements of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s writing. In doing this it reads him as a Modernist writer.2 It begins by focusing on Gibbon’s novels’ formal and stylistic relations to other Modernist writings, while arguing his distinctive sense of literary and historical purpose inflects his Modernism in quite specific ways. This distinctive sense is related to the innovative ways Gibbon embodies historical rhythms and patterns in his novels, creates a narrative voice both local in texture and epic in scope, and explores how historical and political agency are imaginable in the modern world. To understand the innovative quality of the formal and narrative strategies Gibbon develops to represent historical change’s energies and patterns first requires consideration of the theories of history that shaped his literary writings, particularly those associated with the Diffusionist movement. This chapter also considers Gibbon’s ideas and stylistic innovations in relation to the work of other Modernist writers with a strong interest in history, to demonstrate how far he can be understood as part of, but different from, this broader literary Modernism. Having considered these affiliations between Gibbon and Modernism, the chapter examines the material conditions under which the distinctive national and modern voice of Mitchell/Gibbon was produced and circulated in the 1920s and 1930s. It looks at the economic circumstances in which he was working, the networks on which he drew, and the space he carved out through the creation of the figure of ‘Lewis Grassic Gibbon’ as a modern Scottish writer. Moving thus to a more materialist form of criticism allows reflection on both the role of the literary marketplace 10 within Modernism and the formation of critical categories that render innovative forms of writing readable by a variety of publics. It also establishes the critical hierarchies shaping these publics’ reception of literary works, focusing on the historical contexts of Gibbon’s texts’ production and circulation that enabled his fashioning as a Modernist Scottish writer. Modernism, civilisation and history Gibbon’s novelistic writing negotiates two distinct temporalities, related on the one hand to the shape and rhythm of individual lives and on the other to historical time’s much longer rhythms.3 Both Sunset Song (1932) and The Speak of the Mearns (1982), posthumously published, explore northeast Scotland’s particular cultural and geographical landscapes in the early years of the twentieth century, offering compelling individual portraits of constrained but purposeful lives. They do this, however, explicitly within the context of a much longer historical time, reaching back to a remote ancient age of myth. Both novels start in very similar ways, with a succinct and stylised history of the origins of modern Scotland: Sunset Song begins, ‘Kinraddie lands had been won by the Norman childe, Cospatric de Gondeshil, in the days of William the Lyon’, while The Speak of the Mearns opens ‘when the Romans came marching up into Scotland away far back in the early times’.4 These framings of the modern moment within a much longer history of civilisation’s development feature consistently in Gibbon’s work, whether writing under his pseudonym or his original name, James Leslie Mitchell. They also resonate interestingly with a range of other Modernist writers’ concerns. Gibbon’s interest in civilisations’ history began young: his reading of Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley gave him what he found a compelling account of social and biological evolution.5 This interest developed a sharper focus when he later encountered the ideas of the Diffusionist school of anthropology, ideas he was to propagate actively from the late 1920s on across his fictional and non-fictional writings. Diffusionism was a current of thought developed across anthropology, archaeology, cultural history and cognate disciplines in the early years of the twentieth century. It advanced the view that all civilisations across the globe had developed from one original civilisation. For the Diffusionists this was ancient Egypt. They argued that crucial developments, like the working of metal, the development of agriculture and even eventually industrialisation, could all be traced back to ancient Egypt. Grafton Elliot Smith’s The Ancient Egyptians and the Origin of Civilisation (1911) was morag shiach 11 lewis grassic gibbon and modernism one of the earliest texts to make this argument, while W. J. Perry’s...


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