restricted access 1. The Correspondence of James Macpherson
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14 CHAPTER ONE The Correspondence of James Macpherson Paul deGategno James Macpherson’s reputation as the poet of Poems of Ossian has undergone a judicious re-examination and analysis since the late twentieth century. This effort continues, for the most part, to show why dismissive and peremptory comments do not explain the poems, their influence, origin, or the man himself. This chapter focuses on Macpherson’s letter writing and takes an initial, and admittedly selective, step toward understanding how he employed the letter in communicating with literary contacts, political friends and enemies, business associates, and family and friends. Though Bailey Saunders’s 1894 biography presented a through-life portrait of Macpherson, we still lack the minute particulars of his multifarious roles as writer, government agent, journalist, Member of Parliament, and successful businessman. Discussion of the letters will follow four basic categories: literary connections, political, business, and personal interests involving about two hundred and fifty letters from the period 1760 to 1795. However, at least another three hundred letters exist in archives in Great Britain and the US, and this unseen and extant correspondence may provide further answers to unsolved problems. What emerges from this brief initial consideration of his correspondence is the rashness of any simple judgments about him. Yet a picture does start to emerge of Macpherson as a seasoned realist with a dualistic nature, who had the talent and capacity that permitted him to write as Ossian, and on the innocence of nature, and then set aside this falsetto voice, adopt another persona, and write polemical histories and pamphlets. Consideration of his letters offers us the opportunity to see this difference in action in a different forum and to gain a further insight into his multifarious activities through, as it were, his own words. Of Macpherson’s correspondence from the years 1760 to 1780, those letters that survive, or were thought most effective in explaining his 15 motivation for translating and writing The Poems of Ossian, have been published in full or in part, or referenced, in Saunders, Stafford, the Report of the Committee of the Highland Society, and other recent publications .1 However, other Ossianic letters do exist. For example, in the months leading to meeting the Edinburgh literati and the first significant recognition of his talent, Macpherson wrote a group of four letters, apparently unknown to Saunders, to the Rev. George Lawrie of Loudon.2 These letters offer few personal details, but have the tone and effect of a writer already aware of the social and literary implications of his words. Equally, Macpherson’s interior life seems close to the public image he would create. On 27 February 1760 he wrote that ‘I can however say in opposition to my countryman you speak of, that it is highly probable, if not absolutely certain, that my fragments are not of Irish extraction’. He also made the case for Scottish literature, claiming that ‘I see no reason our writers have to make us a colony of Irish’. Given his position remained unequivocal and consistent through to the publication of Fragments of Ancient Poetry in June, this letter offers the earliest example we have of the Macpherson literary persona – the ‘discoverer’ of authentic Gaelic poetry who through his translation can present to his distinguished colleagues, John Home, the dramatist, and Hugh Blair, who became in 1762 Edinburgh University’s first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres: ‘the inclosed […] not as the best, but as it is clean writ out, and the readiest’. His modesty, linked to an aggressive enthusiasm, marks him as a young champion of Scotland: ‘I hope that does not hinder us from having as great genius’s [sic] as they [Irish] can boast of […]. The Scots […] have ever been a free people […] their minds were as generous and free, as their hands were as alive in war.’ Less than three weeks later (18 March 1760), Macpherson wrote again from Balgowan, the estate where he continued as tutor to the future Lord Lynedoch. Again it offers a curious mixture of the familiar, self-effacing, and demanding, and it seems clear that he knew that Blair would read the letter. Blair had by this time already begun working with Macpherson on the Fragments, but the latter spurred on the fascination he had created with these small samples of English prose: I returned in less than three minutes to the cross, where I left you and your other friend with a promise to return in less than a...