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  • Thomas Jefferson’s Ossianic Romance
  • Amanda Louise Johnson (bio)

In 1773, Thomas Jefferson wrote the family of James Macpherson, the famous translator of the Celtic bard Ossian, gushing: “I am not ashamed to own that I think this rude bard of the North the greatest poet that has ever existed.”1 In the 1760s, Macpherson had claimed to have found an epic poem cycle, narrated by the ancient poet, and Jefferson’s letter is just one indication of how the three publications collectively referred to as “Ossian”—Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760), Fingal (1762), and Temora (1763)—met with an enthusiastic reception in Britain and beyond.2 Jefferson then requested a copy of the original manuscripts so that he could learn Gaelic and enjoy the rude bard’s poetry in its original tongue.3

Jefferson’s goal to read the original Ossian, however, was ambitious, even quixotic. Although Macpherson journeyed through the Highlands collecting Scots-Gaelic manuscripts and transcribing local ballads, the Scottish writer never did produce a manuscript source for his translations, and for this reason, to this day, Macpherson’s Ossian has been regarded by some as a hoax, even a fraud.4 Samuel Johnson, the most famous of the accusers, averred that Macpherson, acting out of Highlander pride, invented this epic cycle himself.5 Nonetheless, Jefferson admired Ossian to the end of his life, insisting to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1823 that even “if not [End Page 19] ancient,” Ossian was “equal to the best of antiquity.”6 Readers of Ossian typically took one of two positions—that the work was both authentic and aesthetically pleasing or that it was both fake and poorly written. Jefferson, meanwhile, appeared to concede but also sidestep the issue of authenticity, even suggesting that something belated and supposedly manufactured could have the same level of aesthetic value as something that was “authentic” and original.

In spite of his earnest letter to the Macphersons in 1773, then, Jefferson’s lifelong enthusiasm for Ossian was more than just an exercise in willful naiveté. The origins of Ossian were murky, to say the least, but for Jefferson that was exactly the point. As I argue, Jefferson’s Ossianic romance facilitated a virtuous return, a cultural regeneration that would reify white supremacy in the New Republic. Ossian did so, moreover, through the spontaneous energies of its romance form.

By “romance,” I mean a literary form that David Quint has traced back to Homer, contrasting the romance-like Odyssey with the epic poem the Iliad. While the Iliad might embody the epic mode in its triumphalist, teleological narrative progression, the Odyssey eschewed telos, its plot moving as circuitously as Odysseus’ vessel. Quint identified the “loser’s epic” of the Odyssey as the progenitor of the romance in its “pattern of repetition that threatens to keep [the protagonists] in continual wandering and blocks their progress to their destined future.”7 Noting the British domination of the Highlands, Quint even went so far as to identify Ossian as a “loser’s epic” that shared much of the romance form’s key attributes. Macpherson scholar Dafydd Moore reaches a similar conclusion, arguing that the romance’s “diffuse narrative structure” actually “eschews subordination of incident,” proceeding “by indirection rather than incremental accumulation, a feature reinforced by the engendering of story within story within the context of the main narrative.”8

That the romance can at once appear so removed from reality and still manage to deceive or seduce the reader speaks to its peculiar autopoietic or self-generating structure. Patricia Parker describes the literary genre of the romance—which includes romantic love but also heroic violence, the supernatural, and other spontaneous occurrences—as a narrative system that grows outwards from itself, but ends in a recursive loop. Put another way, “the Ossianic world spins on the spot with no forward momentum whatsoever. History ends with extinction of the aged bard himself.”9 This world, Parker argues, replicates itself as it expands, and the seemingly endless doubling and repetition of Ossian is a dominant literary feature that has divided readers. (Peter Carr, Thomas Jefferson’s nephew, wrote to his uncle complaining of Ossian that...


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