Seeing beyond Scotland: James Hogg, the short story and the ‘imagined community’

Seeing beyond Scotland: James Hogg, the short story and the ‘imagined community’

Duncan Hotchkiss (University of Stirling) explores James Hogg’s short stories as embodying a Scottish experience of dialogue with other nations within the ‘four nations’.

The Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in literature, published a 2006 collection of stories called The View from Castle Rock.[1] A collateral-descendent of the labouring-class Scottish novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, balladeer, essayist and autodidact James Hogg (1770-1835), Munro took inspiration for the title of the collection from a family letter published by Hogg in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1820. In Hogg’s introduction to the letter by his cousin James Laidlaw, Munro’s great-great-great grandfather, who left Selkirkshire for Canada in 1817, he relays an anecdote about taking Laidlaw on a jaunt up Castle Hill in Edinburgh where they surveyed the view across the Firth of Forth while discussing North America, and, to Hogg’s amusement, Laidlaw ‘would not believe me that Fife was not it.’[2]

If Munro’s Nobel Prize in 2013 marked a watershed in the history of the short story, it is worth retracing the steps to her relative Hogg and his contribution to the form. After all, Hogg’s periodical venture The Spy (1810-11) is ‘one the places the modern short story was born’.[3] Just as Munro’s short fiction, with its temporal leaps and elliptical narratives, help tell a history of Scottish emigration and diaspora that goes beyond mere numbers, Hogg’s short stories can facilitate a rich cultural history of Scottish encounters with people and places across the globe as well as within the ‘four nations’ themselves.

Romantic-era Scotland is looked upon by many, including Tom Nairn and Cairns Craig,[4] as a key point in the forging of a modern national identity in Scotland, and the role of print, more specifically, the historical novels of Walter Scott, is widely regarded as a crucial element in that process.[5] I want to suggest here that by considering the short story in this period, we can develop our understanding of those processes by detailing new perspectives on the cultural origins of what Benedict Anderson called the ‘imagined community’ of nation. Hogg himself offers an interesting perspective to the Scott-era forging of national consciousness through print in terms of his class position, his speech and his positioning (both self-styled and imposed) as Burns inheritor. His ‘closeness’ to lowland Scottish communities was both experienced and staged, exploited to full effect through the positioning of the emergent short story as rooted in orality and folk culture – oral history, before the invention of the Dictaphone.

Hogg’s short stories embody a Scottish experience of dialogue with other nations within the ‘four nations’, and internationally. In Dangers of Changing Occupation, the Berwickshire protagonist gives an insight into the social status granted by, and exclusionary function of, ‘proper’ English as experience by labouring-class lowland Scots:

…we all pronounced the words differently from the present and proper diction of the English language, that made little difference in the main, as we did not aim at either the pulpit or the bar.[6]

Hogg’s tales stretch beyond a straightforward Anglo-Scottish binary, as they seeped across the border and back again in many forms, a notable example of which is The Long Pack (WET 1820), or, to give an alternative chapbook edition title for the same story, The Long Pack; a Northumbrian Tale, an hundred years old. In this way, book history and tracing the material trail of Hogg’s short fiction can help toward an understanding of a dialogic Anglo-Scottish border.

The same story follows the farmer as he escapes a debauched life by walking to Greenock and sailing, via Ireland, to North America as part of an international fighting force fighting on the side of the British in the US Wars of Independence. Speaking of Native Americans, the Scots farmer laments ‘the taking of these horrid savages into our army, to destroy our brethren; the men who sprung from the same country, spoke the same language, and worshipped the same God with ourselves’.[7] Linguistic tension, identified earlier in the tale as existing between ‘proper’ English and spoken Scots, is here deployed to racially ‘other’ the Native Americans. This problematises post-colonial readings of Hogg have tended to use his background to suggest he displayed sympathy with the colonised people of the world, though we should be wary of taking the narrative voice here to represent Hogg’s own –  a writer who, after all, operates ‘in a welter of anonymity and pseudonymity, of tricks, sport and imposture’.[8] What Hogg’s tales do, by resisting a totalizing impetus and an authoritative narrative voice, is to reflect the textual performance of the ‘imagined community’ rather than evince a particular portrait of fixed historical-national communities. It is the focus on the process, as opposed to the picture, that renders the Hoggean short story a unique perspective.

Hogg’s short stories, in their content and in their material existence, embody dialogue between lowland Scotland and places far beyond ‘the view from Castle rock’. Munro’s stories offer an imagining of emigration which operates between the ‘real’ (her own family’s experience) and the fictional. Hogg similarly exploits that gap between the ‘real’ and the ‘fictional’, and in doing so his short stories give an insight into how ‘imagined communities’ are continually forged and re-forged through processes involving the interaction between the vernacular and the printed word. James Laidlaw, chagrined at Hogg’s publishing of his own letter in Blackwood’s, responded by having a letter published of his own in Canada’s The Colonial Advocate in 1827: 

‘Hogg poor man has spent most of his Life in coining Lies and if I read the Bible right I think it says that all Liares is to have there pairt in the Lake that Burns with fire and Brimston.’[9]

If the cultural performance of the ‘imagined community’ can cross borders and oceans, then, alas, so too can the very real experience of family fall-outs.  

[1] See Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock: Stories (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

[2] James Hogg, Contributions to Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine Vol. 1, 1817-1828, ed. by Thomas C. Richardson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008) p. 78

[3] John Plotz, ‘Hogg and the Short Story’, in The Edinburgh Companion to James Hogg, ed. by Ian Duncan and Douglas S. Mack (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) p. 115

[4] See Tom Nairn, ‘The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism’, New Left Review 49 (May/June 1968) p. 7, and Cairns Craig, ‘Scott’s Staging of the Nation’, Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring, 2001) pp. 13-28.

[5]Starting points for the extensive body of literature on Scott and Scotland include Hugh Trevor Roper, ‘The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland’, in The Invention of Tradition, ed. by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983) pp. 15-42, and Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997)

[6] James Hogg, The Spy: A Periodical Paper of Literary Amusement and Instruction, ed. by Gillian Hughes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000) p. 22

[7] Ibid. p. 40

[8] Karl Miller, ‘Star of the Borders’, in The Guardian 9 August 2003 [accessed 17/06/2016]

[9] William McKenzie, Sketches of Canada and the United States (Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 1833) p. 471

Duncan Hotchkiss is a 2nd-year AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of Stirling, researching James Hogg, the short story and Romantic-era Scottish cultural history. Duncan is part of the team hosting the ‘James Hogg Exhibition 2017: Hogg in the World’ at the University of Stirling during summer, 2017. The aim of the exhibition is to represent the worldwide reach of Hogg’s work and reputation by exhibiting a selection of key publications and manuscripts, alongside objects and images.

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