- Robert Burns and the United States of America: Poetry, Print, and Memory 1786–1866 by Arun Sood
Since the early 2010s, scholars in the fields of Scottish and Transatlantic Studies have been reappraising Robert Burns's legacy and influence in North America and the Caribbean; for instance, Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (2012), edited by Sharon Alker, Leith Davis and Holly Faith Nelson, sought to 'read Burns across the Atlantic' by addressing key concerns such as slavery and the American Revolution, as well as 'remediating' the poet's 'transatlantic cultural memory'. Similarly, Robert Burns in Global Culture (2011), edited by Murray Pittock, assessed Burns's international reception as a truly global figure, with multiple zones and markers of influence. To this fruitful area of inquiry must be added Arun Sood's Robert Burns and the United States of America: Poetry, Print, and Memory 1786–1866, a work which seeks to interrogate the nature of the poet's appeal in the United States. Like its predecessors in Scottish and Transatlantic Studies, Robert Burns and the United States of America offers productive analysis of Burns's transatlantic reception, with close examination of American editions, reprints, poetic imitations and tributes, celebrations, and statuary from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Sood employs current theories of cultural memory to interpret this body of work, with the objective of refiguring Burns as a '(trans)national' rather than a solely national poet.
Sood begins this process by looking at 'Burns beyond Scotland', arguing that Burns had deep 'engagement with contemporary transatlantic affairs and international politics' (p. 3). This point is amply addressed in the book's first chapter, in which Burns's 'American works' in verse and correspondence are interpreted in depth. Of particular interest is the author's analysis of 'When Guilford Good', Burns's 'Ballad on the American War'. Readers of this poem can attest to its extensive allusiveness to topical events, which Sood skillfully interprets and explains to highlight 'the hostile environment in which Burns was writing, where challenges to the political hegemony […] would not go unpunished' (p. 19). In fact, the relative scarcity of 'American works' in Burns's oeuvre is attributed to this extratextual pressure for silence on the subject. While Sood does not delve deeply into the knotty issue of Burns's politics, he does demonstrate that Burns felt an affinity for American politicians, especially George Washington (for whom Burns wrote a birthday ode). These early chapters in Robert Burns and the United States of America make [End Page 187] intriguing connections between Burns's political sentiments and his 'idea of what America stood for' (p. 38), resulting in largely successful analysis of this transatlantic dimension of the poet's work.
In part two of the book, entitled 'American Print Culture and Poets', Sood offers several interesting chapters on Burns's poetic reception in American newspapers, journals, reprints and biographies. The discussion of the early newspaper printings of Burns's verse reveals the author's valuable archival research, with fine asides on the American reception of poems like 'Man Was Made to Mourn' in venues such as the Pennsylvania Packet. Along similar lines is a detailed section on 'swift reprints' of Burns's Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1787) in the New York and Philadelphia markets, c. 1787–1788; this is followed by a discussion of biographical accounts by Robert Heron and James Currie in American editions of the poet's works. Sood seeks to rehabilitate the latter figure's biographical enterprise by arguing that Currie had a 'transnational agenda' (p. 64), one which was employed to meet the needs of a readership beyond Scotland. This is a fairly effective strategy, though it tends to mitigate the serious damage inflicted upon Burns's reputation by Currie's often tendentious biography, as well as the detrimental effects of the editor's frequent interpolations and omissions in his famous edition of Burns's Works (1800). Sood examines the reviews of this edition in several American...