- Beyond Scotland: New Contexts for Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature
Furnished with a new parliament and a fresh focus on theoretical approaches to culture and history, Scottish studies has entered the twenty-first century with growing signs of confidence. This volume is a measure of that new-found maturity and motivation. The editors' 'Introduction', though disarmingly short at a mere five pages, stands as a dense and dramatic intervention and an object lesson in condensation and coherence. It has to be re-read after the final chapter in order to fully appreciate its focused flagging up of the issues. The opening essay by Douglas Gifford usefully extends its delicate probing of questions of period, prejudice, and provenance. In 'Re-mapping Renaissance in Modern Scottish Literature', Gifford amplifies the notion of 'The Scottish Renaissance' as a corrective to an entrenched narrow focus produced by some canon-formers. He takes as his example Hugh MacDiarmid, who was more gatekeeper than usher, determined to limit the number of Scottish writers of note. Foregrounding authors overlooked in standard accounts of the period, Gifford also brings to light lesser known critics with less pessimistic perspectives on Scottish writing than MacDiarmid or Edwin Muir, who, whatever their disagreements, shared a profound scepticism about the prospects for Scottish literature. One of those whom Gifford exhumes is William Power, author of Literature and Oatmeal (1935), a less colourful account of the subject than those offered by his more cynical contemporaries. Power's understated criticism lacks the dramatic energy of MacDiarmid's but its treatment of the literature of the period is, Gifford argues, vital to our understanding of its variety as well as its vibrancy.
David Goldie's essay, 'Scotland, Britishness, and the First World War', is another example of engaging analysis, out to debunk the bunker-mentality of conventional criticism. Goldie detects a widespread fear by the end of the First World War 'that the co-option of Scottish literature in the British project had become so complete as to make any declaration of cultural independence almost impossible' (55), and this at a time when Ireland was shrugging off at least part of its colonial inheritance. Goldie sees MacDiarmid aspiring to Internationalist Modernism against the grain of Scottish nationalism, so that he has to be both Douglas Hyde and James Joyce. [End Page 415]
It is one of the curiosities of this compelling collection that its longest essay, Alexander Mackay's 'MacDiarmid and Russia Revisited', is the weakest, going against the grain of the 'beyond' to which the book's title alludes. Mackay's efforts to discredit MacDiarmid's communism carries the chill of a Cold War attack. This is criticism from the back of beyond. And there are methodological problems too. Mackay conflates 'internationalism' and 'cosmopolitanism' in order to establish 'the terminal falseness of [MacDiarmid's] relationship to Russia' (87). He takes an offstage remark by MacDiarmid about 'cosmopolitan scum' and makes it the cross on which to crucify him: 'Thus, with an expression that drips the blood of those who perished in the Soviet Union's post-war anti-cosmopolitanism campaign, MacDiarmid reveals the enduring depths of his own spurious internationalism' (88). Now, cosmopolitanism is a very problematic notion. To conflate it with internationalism, spurious or otherwise, is risky. This is not an essay that requires revisiting, except by its author.
By contrast, Edwin Morgan's contribution, 'Flying with Tatlin, Clouds in Trousers: A Look at Russian Avant-Gardes', is marked not by knee-jerk negativity, but genuine disagreement hedged with respect and admiration. According to Morgan, 'MacDiarmid was an eccentric homespun avant-gardist, and aspects of his poetry have a quasi-futurist quality that owes nothing to the Russian, but is nonetheless interesting in its own right' (99–100). For Morgan, MacDiarmid's emphasis was 'on giving a voice to the inarticulate in society, which Maiakovskii certainly did (though he did other things as well)' (100). Morgan, unlike Mackay, juxtaposes Joyce and...