- Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786–1831 by Gerard Lee McKeever
With case studies covering poetry, fiction and drama, along with religious, political and aesthetic discourses, Gerard Lee McKeever’s Dialectics of Improvement examines in wholly new ways a select band of Scottish writers of the Romantic period: Robert Burns, James Hogg, Walter Scott, Joanna Baillie and John Galt. Improvement, as the book explores, provided a shaping theme for literary and non-literary texts alike, across the political spectrum, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Above all else, this is solid intellectual history concerned with real consequences to otherwise abstract questions about what literature is and what it can do: a medium of secular belonging, a vehicle of indefinite exchange, an educational tool or a theoretical guide to history.
Ever a careful scholar, McKeever cautions us against overcomplicating a definition of improvement. Still, as he concedes, progress can only be a controversial topic as it relies on personal and state-sanctioned agendas: improvement for whom, exactly? Who decides? Even now such agendas often seek to obstruct improvement in the intellectual or material lives of marginalised groups. Well-meaning agendas can be condescending, even didactic. Focusing on the dialectics of improvement, rather than propaganda, literary or otherwise, is a smart move as it brings to the fore historical, political and socioeconomic contexts for aesthetic analyses, and speaks back to the enlightenment bases of such inquiries. Modern accounts of Scottish Romanticism, logically enough, tend to attend to groups with shared political concerns or regional networks centred on core values. While this new book does not refute such treatments, it does offer an alternative approach: McKeever isolates author-centric case studies in which distinctive aesthetic engagements have been shaped by generic and formal expectations.
The chapter on Burns offers an extended reading of what would become his most celebrated poem throughout the nineteenth century, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. Here, McKeever finds new parallels between Burns’s handling of the religious and socioeconomic dimensions of improvement, namely, a poetic mapping of a model of spiritual renewal rooted in New Licht Presbyterianism onto the crisis of laissez-faire modernisation. Rather than being a [End Page 175] conservative outlier in Burns’s largely radical oeuvre, ‘The Cotter’, in this reading, addresses but does not explain away a complex set of political concerns. Recent Burns scholarship, particularly from the Glasgow School, has greatly advanced our understanding of the importance of book and manuscript cultures for the poet’s self-fashioning as a Scottish Bard. Deftly traversing a range of debates, McKeever’s intellectual history is a welcome addition to that school of thought.
For me, the chapter on Hogg and Scott is especially important, not least of all because it addresses a curious lacuna in Scott scholarship, that is, an inattention to his shorter fiction. Hogg has fared much better in recent accounts of the rise of periodical fiction in Scotland, but much more could be made of his textual relationship with other short-form writers in national and regional settings – or, better yet, in the cosmopolitan. Focusing on the half-decade between 1827 and 1831, this chapter places Hogg’s later contributions to Blackwood’s Magazine alongside Scott’s Chronicles of the Canongate, the latter of which tends to get grouped with, and judged against, the Waverley Novels. The chapter on Joanna Baillie’s drama and drama theory is equally timely, not least of all because scholars tend to focus on poetry and prose in surveys of Scottish Romanticism. As McKeever avers, dramatic works are uniquely placed to engender moral growth because of its capacity to invoke what Baillie calls sympathetic curiosity. Addressing a wide array of plays, from Count Basil (1798) to The Alienated Manor (finally published in 1836), McKeever demonstrates the persistence of Baillie’s interest in an individual’s contribution to networks of social power. Most significantly of all, he situates the dramatist’s commitment to didacticism within the counter-revolutionary thinking that dominated in the 1790s.
The fictional works of John Galt – or, theoretical histories...