- A New Race of Men: Scotland 1815–1914 by Michael Fry
Michael Fry begins his book by emphasising that he has ‘cast his net wider than is usual in Scottish historiography’ by putting ‘the nation’s culture, indeed high culture, on a par with mechanised agriculture, steel production, housing problems and other such matters that form the normal pabulum for academic historians of Scotland’.
So far, so admirable. Some would argue that without the historical understanding of culture and literature, history is simply inadequate to humanity. History, after all, is literature: telling stories in another way. Ezra Pound, in his essay ‘The Serious Artist’ from The Egoist (1913), says: ‘The arts give us a great percentage of the lasting and unassailable data regarding the nature of man, of immaterial man, of man considered as a thinking and sentient creature’. Fry’s justification goes further, though. He argues that socially and economically, Scotland might justly be understood as no more than a region of England, but in politics and culture, it is different. This is as valid a foundation for a history of Scotland as it is for independence.
A New Race of Men (the title is from the New Statistical Account of 1840: ‘I seem to live not only among a new race of men, but in a new world’) is structured in five sections: economy, social history, social margins, politics, and culture, the last being mainly architecture, painting, literature and philosophy. For literary scholarship, this has a twofold value: the literary study in Fry’s book is informed by its author’s understanding of history, but also the literature studied is located firmly in its own historical context. Thus, Fry’s economic history tracks the industrial revolution from its origins in textiles (flax, linen, cotton, thread, jute, linoleum), through chemicals, rubber, explosives, to coal, iron and steel, and then to shipbuilding, the railways and trade. This might usefully prompt further new historicist literary readings of nineteenth-century Scottish literature. Equally, the developments in medicine, weaving, the church, education and the law, all have specific application in Scottish literature, both written at the time (Galt, Stevenson) and later (Jenkins, Robertson). There are vivid accounts of the growth of Scotland’s major cities, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, highlighting their distinctions in ways that illuminate their native writers. For example, Fry’s Dundee is decidedly that of James Young Geddes, as his Glasgow is that of Marion Bernstein, both highly significant poets only [End Page 166] recently revalued — neither, however, noted by Fry. In literature, as in painting, he goes for canonical figures.
With painting, it is valuable to see the emphasis on the tradition that runs through Nasmyth, Raeburn, Wilkie, to the Glasgow Boys and the Colourists, but Fry misses entirely the major significance of Gaelic-speaking William McTaggart, the greatest Scottish artist of the time; similarly, he passes over nineteenth-century Gaelic poetry. Noting how the Education Act of 1872 ‘set out to seal the fate of Gaelic’, his judgement is that ‘after its golden age in the eighteenth century its literature fell into a decline not halted till the work of Sorley MacLean in the twentieth century’. This is a mistake.
There is more careful detail on the institutional oppression of Scots and its flourishing in vernacular literature and the dictionaries, but he is strongest in his reading of Scott. What he says about the Waverley novels in six pages is a fresh blast for anyone who still thinks Scott is dull. Fry reads the Scottish novels in their chronological sequence as history, presenting Scott as a novelist addressing the big themes of his time — and ours — in his own. Thus Old Mortality presents a moderate hero in a society ‘where figures espousing every shade of extremism rage, fight and kill, each in his own sacred cause’.
Fry acknowledges the virtues of Galt, though in concentrating on Annals of the Parish, he misses the poignant panorama of The Entail. He approves Hogg, Stevenson and George Douglas Brown, then comes to the popular fiction of the...