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
Scotland.com, 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
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]
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.
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.
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]
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).
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).
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.
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”
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.
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.
[viii] Ferguson, Pride and Passion, v.
[ix] G. Ross Roy, interview by author, May 12, 2011.
Bibliography of Ferguson’s Critical
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,
---, 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),
---. “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),
---. “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),
---. “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.