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Robert Burns Lives!
John DeLancey Ferguson (1888-1966): An Appreciation By Corey Andrews

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

There are many joys I have experienced editing a regular web site about Robert Burns. One of the most significant is the number of true Burns scholars I meet. As the years go by relationships are formed and grow into friendships. Naturally, in time, these friendships take on a personal nature and even though you may only see some of the contributors to Robert Burns Lives! at various conferences, you find yourself looking forward to seeing them again and again. Such is my relationship with Corey Andrews who is an Associate Professor of English at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Back in 2004 he published Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Club Poetry which established him as a young man on the way up in academic circles. He has published articles   and reviews in Scottish Literary Review, the International Journal of Scottish Literature, The Eighteenth-Century: Theory and Interpretation, Eighteenth-Century Scotland, Lumen and Robert Burns lives!. He has a love for and insight into Robert Burns that is evidenced in his writing as well as in the four articles that already appear in the pages of this web site. (See Chapters 77, 93, 105 and 126 in our Robert Burns Index page.) Corey has a beautiful chapter entitled Burns the Critic, in a very significant book, The Edinburgh Companion To Robert Burns, Edited by Professor Gerard Carruthers. Andrews is also a contributor to the Burns Chronicle, Books from, The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs and he has a chapter in a newly published book worth standing in line to buy, Robert Burns and Friends, essays by W. Ormiston Roy Fellows presented to G. Ross Roy and edited by Patrick Scott & Kenneth Simpson.

Below is an in-depth article about John DeLancey Ferguson’s scholarly work on Robert Burns. My personal thanks to Corey for once again sharing his research on Burns with our readers and I am grateful for the friendship the two of us have developed over the years. It has always amazed me how Robert Burns continues to bring people together making Burns the best of common denominators! (FRS: 8.8.12)

John DeLancey Ferguson (1888-1966): An Appreciation
By Corey Andrews

Dr. Corey Andrews, Associate Professor Youngstown State University in Ohio

Among twentieth-century Burns scholars, the work of John DeLancey Ferguson stands out for its important contributions to literary criticism and editing. After receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1916, Ferguson began his career teaching at Heidelberg College before moving to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he taught for twelve years. He next taught at Western Reserve University, where he supervised the master’s thesis of Robert D. Thornton (whose work on Burns is also a significant contribution to the field). He ended his teaching career at Brooklyn College, serving as Chair of the English department until 1954. He received numerous awards over the years, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928.[i]

Ferguson’s scholarship covers an impressive range of material in diverse traditions; in fact, he did not begin his career as a Burns scholar. His first book American Literature in Spain (1916) grew out his doctoral work at Columbia University, focusing on the Spanish reception of such nineteenth-century American writers as Poe, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Whitman. In Mark Twain: Man and Legend (1943), Ferguson examined competing representations of Twain that contributed to his “legendary” status in America; this book reveals Ferguson’s critical acumen in exploring the relations between writers and their celebrity, a skill he would employ to great effect in his work on Burns. In addition to his work on American literature, Ferguson also wrote Theme and Variation in the Short Story (1938) and The Relations of the State to Religion in New York and New Jersey during the Colonial Period (1912). He edited the correspondence of Robert Louis Stevenson as well and compiled a “book of living narratives” for use in the classroom.

However, it is Ferguson’s work as a Burns scholar that most distinguishes his career as critic and editor. Ferguson’s edition of Burns’s correspondence, initially published in 1931 and then reissued in 1985 in a revised version by G. Ross Roy, was the first major edition of the poet’s letters that was both reliable and comprehensive. In his introduction, Ferguson notes that his edition was “the first systematic attempt to edit the letters … from the original manuscripts, and to present the entire body of his correspondence on its own merits.”[ii] He continues by observing that “it has been the custom to disparage Burns’s merits and achievements as a letter-writer” (xxix). One of Ferguson’s goals in the edition is to rectify this misperception of the poet, principally by providing the all-important context for each letter’s composition and the nature of its recipient. In doing so, Ferguson’s edition is a powerful corrective to the often simplistic assumption that Burns was a poor letter-writer, especially when corresponding in English.

Another motivation of Ferguson’s edition also coincides with one of his key aims as a Burns scholar: to examine the poet’s work in its entirety, without prejudice or the desire to expurgate “undesirable” material in the canon. Many popular nineteenth-century editions of Burns’s correspondence withheld or directly censored passages that contradicted the romanticized image of Burns as a “heaven-taught ploughman.” As Ferguson notes, “some of the disappointment which the early critics experienced in reading these letters was due to the contrast between what they expected and what they found” (xxx). For instance, Ferguson published Burns’s letters to Robert Cleghorn which alluded to the poet’s collection of “bawdry.” Ferguson remarks that “the correspondence harmed Burns’s reputation not through its publication but through its long suppression.”[iii] In fact, he comments that “now that the surviving letters can be read in full, they produce no … revulsion …. Beneath their coarseness is the record of a genuine friendship with an honest, hearty, and generous man” (109-110). In an interview with this author, G. Ross Roy remarked that one of Ferguson’s key differences from previous Burns editors was his willingness to admit that Burns wrote bawdry, seeing it not as “filth” but as an important element of the Burns canon.[iv] By providing an uncensored edition of the letters, Ferguson sought to reveal the poet as a whole; as he notes, the letters “do better than give us a formula: they give us Burns as he lived—a complex human personality.”[v] Ferguson achieves this throughout his edition, providing painstakingly researched literary and contextual background for the letters. Roy states that Ferguson’s edition of the Letters was “a landmark in Burns scholarship”; indeed, it continues to be the standard scholarly edition.[vi] 

Ferguson’s criticism of Burns spans from textual analysis of songs, poems, and letters to contextual and cultural study of the poet’s life and reception history. In addition, his biography of Burns, Pride and Passion (1939), offers a circumspect and incisive view of Burns that remains instructive in the present. Roy describes Pride and Passion as an “underrated” biography, finding it to be “one of the three or four most important biographies of Burns.”[vii] In his preface, Ferguson describes the difficulty facing biographers of Burns, noting that “the personality which blazes in the poems and glows in the letters only smoulders in the biographies.”[viii] In order to defy the “same stereotyped outline of dividing the poet’s life according to the places he lived in,” Ferguson wrote Pride and Passion to answer the following question: “What sort of man was Robert Burns?” (v). Accordingly, Ferguson employed an approach seldom seen in previous biographies (and seen little since); he explored key elements of Burns’s life and works, using the entire span of Burns’s brief life to fully analyze such aspects as Scotland, education, men, women, livelihood, song, and the Scot. For the reader who has previous knowledge of Burns’s life story, this remains a very fresh approach. Given the plenitude of biographies available, Pride and Passion distinguishes itself for its evaluative insight and debunking spirit. Ferguson notes in his preface that “most editors and biographers have either been bred in the rosy mists of the Burns legend or have worked their way back to the original records through a mass of secondary printed matter” (vi-vii). Growing out of his work on an edition of Burns’s poetry, Pride and Passion is the result of Ferguson’s immersion in primary sources available to the biographer, with little to none of the external prejudice (good or bad) toward Burns that inhibits many other biographies. As Ferguson himself put it, “when I started I had … everything to learn, but nothing to unlearn, and my basic impression of the poet and his work was founded on intimate acquaintance with his own words, and not on what other people had said about him” (vii).

Over the course of Pride and Passion, Burns emerges as a man of powerful feelings whose complicated relations to others and his nation were represented in his poetry and experienced in his life. The contextual background supplied throughout the biography remains instructive; his introductory chapter “Scotland,” for instance, is a tour de force of national and cultural history, revealing that “a Scot in the eighteenth century was a poor relation, subject to the slights and scorns of more prosperous kinfolk, and reared amid poverty, theology, and filth” (3). Before he turned to Burns himself, Ferguson depicted the drastic transformations impacting eighteenth-century Scotland, from political union to cultural assimilation; Burns’s role in this process of transformation was profoundly important, for Ferguson claims that Burns “made the Scots conscious of the richness of their national tradition” (33). He does not see Burns as a messianic figure, stating that although Burns “could not restore [national tradition] to life … he taught its people to cherish its ruins” (33).

Another valuable contribution to Burns scholarship can be found in Ferguson’s chapter on the poet’s education, still a lively topic of discussion among Burnsians. In this chapter, Ferguson completely debunks the persistent myth (often promoted by Burns himself) of the poet’s unlearned, “natural” genius. The persistent efforts of Burns’s father to educate the poet are represented as a major factor in Burns’s growth and development as a poet. Ferguson also credits Burns’s tutor John Murdoch for his role in exposing Burns to the literature of his day, particularly figures such as Pope, Addison and Steele, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden. As Ferguson observes, “nothing could preserve anyone, who read at all, from the influence of the neo-classics” (42). However, he also notes that “outside the door the rich vernacular literature of Scotland was still vigorously alive, though no schoolmaster in Burns’s boyhood would have dreamed of letting it in” (42). Ferguson admirably depicts the tensions underpinning Burns’s literary influences, forming the crucible necessary for the poet’s progress to become Scotland’s national bard. 

A critical moment in Ferguson’s biography is the moment when Burns finally finds “an aim” in life and begins his career as a poet: “intimate observation had acquainted him with human nature, and had at last roused him to realization of his own capacities and his true vocation” (78). Realizing this “true vocation” is what has always distinguished Burns from other Scottish poets, particularly the moment (as in his poem “The Vision”) when he exhibits a self-conscious awareness of his purpose and responsibilities as a national bard. Ferguson describes this process of transformation vividly in Pride and Passion, finding that as early as 1785 “all that [Burns] needed now was the opportunity to display his talents on a larger stage” (78). The biography explores all the permutations of Burns’s literary celebrity, from the uncomfortable glare of fame (especially the admonitions of well-meaning, would-be critics) to the concomitant influence Burns was able to exert upon Scottish literature. The final chapter “The Scot” explores the underlying presence of sentiment in Burns’s politics, which would be a major feature of the poet’s nationalist appeal. Describing Burns as “an emotional man deprived of any authority except emotions on which he could rely” (287), Ferguson examines Burns’s politics in order “to explain what appear to be glaring contradictions in thought” (287). Finding that Burns (like Whitman) contradicts himself, Ferguson nevertheless asserts that Burns’s experience of politics was a learning process that was absolutely necessary for the poet to undergo in the revolutionary times in which he lived. “The idealist in politics,” Ferguson states, “had learned the substance of which politicians are made” (299). By the end of Pride and Passion, Ferguson sounds an elegiac note, finding that Burns “saved Scotland; himself he could not save” (306). In Ferguson’s analysis, the posthumous veneration of Burns by his admirers led to a severe misunderstanding of the poet’s life and works: “not the existence of the cult, but the direction it took, is the tragedy of Burns” (307). The unfortunate direction to which Ferguson refers is “his worshippers exalting [Burns’s] weakest work and ignoring his best” (307).

Ferguson’s critique is a necessary tonic even today, particularly as the poet’s life and work continue to serve as an important national and cultural legacy in Scotland. By dedicating his scholarly career to examining the whole of Burns’s life and writing, Ferguson contributed greatly to our current understanding of the poet’s significance in the eighteenth century and beyond. Roy has described him as “one of the top one or two Burns scholars of the twentieth century.”[ix] Indeed, in all capacities, Ferguson was a dedicated scholar whose criticism repays our close consideration for its impartial yet clearly admiring appreciation of Robert Burns and his achievements.


[i] For biographical information on Ferguson, see Robert D. Thornton, “Professor John DeLancey Ferguson, 13 November 1888-12 August 1966,” Burns Chronicle 56 (1967), 56-57. See also Who Was Who in America, vol. 4 (1961-1968). I would like to thank Patrick Scott for his help in finding biographical information on Ferguson.
[ii] J. DeLancey Ferguson, ed., The Letters of Robert Burns, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931), v. This edition will be hereafter cited in the text of the essay.
[iii] J. DeLancey Ferguson, Pride and Passion: Robert Burns, 1759-1796 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), 109. This edition will be hereafter cited in the text of the essay.
[iv] G. Ross Roy, interview by author, May 12, 2011.
[v] Ferguson, Letters, 1: xxxviii.
[vi] G. Ross Roy, interview by author, May 12, 2011. Plans for a new edition of the correspondence are currently underway.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Ferguson, Pride and Passion, v.
[ix] G. Ross Roy, interview by author, May 12, 2011.

Bibliography of Ferguson’s Critical Works


Ferguson, J. DeLancey. American Literature in Spain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1916.

 ---, ed. The Letters of Robert Burns. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.

---, and G. Ross Roy, eds. The Letters of Robert Burns. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

---, and Marshall Waingrow, eds. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letters to Charles Baxter. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1956.

---. Mark Twain: Man and Legend. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.

---. Men and Moments: A Book of Living Narratives. New York: Knight, 1938.

---, preface and introductory note to The Merry Muses of Caledonia. Ed. James Barke and Sidney Goodsir Smith. New York: Putnam, 1959.

---, ed. The Poems of Robert Burns. Glasgow: The University Press, 1965.

---. The Relations of the State to Religion in New York and New Jersey during the Colonial Period. New Brunswick: Rutgers College, 1912.

--- and Robert Tyson Fitzhugh, eds. Robert Burns, His Associates and Contemporaries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943.

---, ed. Selected Letters of Robert Burns. London: Oxford University Press, 1953.

---, ed. Selected Poems of Robert Burns. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

---. Theme and Variation in the Short Story. New York: The Cordon Company, 1938.


Ferguson, J. DeLancey. “‘Against Two Things I Am Fixed as Fate.’” Modern Language Notes 46.4 (1931), 232-236.

---. “An Inedited Burns Letter.” Modern Language Notes 58.8 (1943), 617-620.

---. “‘Antique’ Smith and His Forgeries of Robert Burns.” Colophon 13 (1933), n.p.

---. “Burns and Hugh Blair.” Modern Language Notes 45.7 (1930), 440-446.

---. “Burns and Jenny Clow.” Modern Language Notes 48.3 (1933), 168-172.

---. “Burns and the Drama.” Scots Magazine 21 (1934), 278-286.

---. “Burns and the Indies in 1788.” Modern Language Notes 44.5 (1929), 303-305.

---. “Burns and The Merry Muses.” Modern Language Notes 66.7 (1951), 471-473.

---. “Burns’s Journal of His Border Tour.” PMLA 49.4 (1934), 1107-1115.

---. “Canceled Passages in the Letters of Robert Burns to George Thomson.” PMLA 43.4 (1928), 1110-1120.

---. “In Defense of Robert Hartley Cromek.” Philological Quarterly 9 (1930), 239-248.

---. “Maria Riddell’s Sketch of Burns.” Philological Quarterly 13 (1934), 261-266.

---. “New Light on the Burns-Dunlop Estrangement.” PMLA 44.4 (1929), 1106-1115.

---. “Robert Burns and Maria Riddell.” Modern Philology 28.2 (1930), 169-184.

---. “Some Aspects of the Burns Legend.” Philological Quarterly 11 (1932), 263-273.

---. “Some New Burns Letters.” PMLA 51.4 (1936), 975-984.

---. “Some Notes on Burns’s Reading.” Modern Language Notes 45.6 (1930), 370-376.

---. “The Earliest Obituary of Burns: Its Authorship and Influence.” Modern Philology 32.2 (1934), 179-184.

---. “The Immortal Memory.” American Scholar 5 (1936), 441-450.

---. “The Reid Miniature of Robert Burns.” Colophon 6 (1931), 6.

---. “The Suppressed Poems of Burns.” Modern Philology 30.1 (1932), 53-60.

---. “The Text of Burns’s Passion’s Cry.” Modern Language Notes 45.2 (1930), 99-102.

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