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  • Castes of ExceptionTradition and the Public Sphere in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
  • Daniel Stout

The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God him self.

—Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

[O]n behalf of his Majesty's rights and titles; he therefore, for himself, and as prince and steward of Scotland … hereby grants to the said George Colwan, his heirs and assignees whatsomever, heritably and irrevocably, all and haill the lands and others underwritten … heritably and irrevocably in all time coming.

—James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner1

Scholars of James Hogg have offered two major approaches to his most famous novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. One line of criticism has dealt with the novel as a gothic satire of Calvinist faith, particularly the belief in predestination. The other line has described the novel as both a performance of, and a commentary on, conditions of authorship in an Edinburgh public sphere under the sway of an increasingly monolithic English literary nationalism.2 Given that both approaches have combined to lend Hogg his status as a relatively major minor (which is to say importantly minor) romantic author, it bears noting that the critical views are themselves at cross purposes. For insofar as Scottish Presbyterian religion amounts to an indigenous tradition, the novel's ostensible critique of Calvinism rests uneasily alongside the claim that Hogg was attempting to develop a particularly Scottish form of culture over and against (possibly) a British and (certainly) an English one.3 We might, it would seem, argue that Hogg meant to elevate certain traditions above others—that he felt himself in a position to pick and choose the more attractive features [End Page 535] of a tradition, to side with one version of Scottishness rather than another. But beyond the difficulty of saying just which traditions the novel can be said to valorize—given that the novel's story of a haunted Calvinist blends religious tradition with (rather than culls that tradition from) other, and older, forms of Scottish folklore—there is the larger difficulty posed by the tendency to see national tradition as a holistic, integrated collection not really reducible to even a complete list of discrete particulars let alone some hived-off subset of practices. For both practical and theoretical reasons, then, there is a real question about the viability of taking the novel as both a critique of Calvinism and, at the same time, an endorsement of folk belief more generally; it looks as though what is true of Calvinism ought to be true of tradition more broadly construed.

Despite the difficulties that, I am suggesting, attend any effort to see Hogg's novel as advocating straightforwardly for nationalist tradition, it is true that the novel gains a certain romantic currency by being understood as an engagement with the broader issue of tradition rather than with the more particular subject matter of the sinner's seventeenth-century religious enthusiasm. For while Scottish Presby-terianism, in balancing a sense of Scottish nativism with the desire for protestant succession, had been an important and complex political factor in both the run-up to the Act of Union and the monarchical struggles surrounding and following 1707, by 1824 the specific topic of Calvinism would have lacked the political charge that the Jacobite risings (the last of which, in 1745, features in Walter Scott's Waverly) still contained in the ambience of the French Revolution. It can, this is to say, be difficult to see just why Hogg would have found the subject of Calvinism particularly worth taking up. But broadening our description of the novel's interest—from a particular tradition (Calvinism) within Scottish history to the place of tradition itself within Scottish history—immediately extends the novel's purchase by making it a visible participant in the development of a romantic nationalism whose emphasis on local cultural identity sought to revivify the abstraction of statehood from within or, in the case of Scotland, to trouble the imposition of multi-statehood from without. If Calvinism indexes tradition more generally, it is possible to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 535-560
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-06
Open Access
No
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