Chat's with Frank R. Shaw
FSA Scot A chat with Arthur Herman
A Highlander And His Books
A CHAT WITH ARTHUR HERMAN
Author of How the Scots
Invented the Modern World Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot,
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Q: Much has been made of the fact
that you are a non-Scot writing about Scots, but authors write from the
same perspective as Churchill did when he wrote about the Civil War. How
do you figure this helped or hindered you (or both) in the five years it
took to write this book?
Actually, I wonder if I get away with the assertions I make in the book
about Scotsí essential role in making the modern world, if my name were,
letís say, Angus MacBean! In one sense, there is nothing new about my
thesis - Scots have been saying the same thing for years and been ignored
because of it. It adds to the credibility when someone who is a bona fide
non-Scot, and a certified historian, says it, not out of ethnic pride or
chauvinism, but simply because the evidence compels him to.
Q: How long were you in Scotland
during this period of time and where did you do the majority of your
research Ė Scotland or America?
Most of the research was done here in the States, but there were some
valuable materials in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and in
the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. I also made it a goal to try to
personally visit every place in Scotland I wrote about in the book, from
Perth to Glencoe to Ardnamurchan.
Q: How did you decide to write about
this fascinating topic of Scots inventing the modern world, and did you
raise eyebrows among your fellow historians about it?
an historian and teacher, I was always fascinated by how much of modern
thought was inspired by those great minds of the Scottish Enlightenment -
Adam Smith in Glasgow, David Hume in Edinburgh, Thomas Reid in Aberdeen,
along with Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kames, John Millar, Dugald Stewart -
and thought it would be fun to do a book on why they came up with the
ideas they did, and how profound the impact of those ideas has been. But
then when I began to do some research, I realized they were not only
supremely great thinkers, but also Scottish thinkers. That was when the
bigger project began to take shape, a book really about the modern Scot as
the culture-bearer of our civilization.
Q: Your chapter on "The Last
Minstrel" is as fine a chapter as I have ever read on Sir Walter Scott,
long a favorite of mine and too long ignored by current historians and the
general public today. When one considers all he did for Scotland, the
historical novel, as well as literature in general in Scotland, England
and around the world, how could he end up with the lack of recognition
today? Do you have more to offer in explanation than what is in your book?
Do you see a comeback for Scott today?
Yes, I hope you are right. Scott does deserve a better reputation. For a
long time it has been the fashion to treat him as a pre-Victorian
sentimentalist and writer of historical romances - a sort of Scottish
Margaret Mitchell - and many blame him for the cultural distortions that
resulted from the "kingís jaunt" in Edinburgh in 1822 - a tartanism and
all that. (Editorís note: Dr. Herman is referring here to George IV.) I
donít see him that way at all. I see him as a part and parcel of the
Scottish Enlightenment in its later phase, a man who was devoted to
Scotland and to its past, but who understood the historical forces that
had created it and were in the nineteenth century undoing it, and looked
for a way to save what he could of that past before it vanished forever.
Heís a terribly important and underrated figure. Part of the problem, I
suppose, is that modern readers usually find his popular books - Ivanhoe
and Waverly and The Talisman - unsympathetic and over wrought. In fact, it
is his lesser-known Scottish novels - like Old Mortality - that are now
coming back into critical attention, and may trigger that Scott boom
youíre talking about.
Q: In your book you have put more
emphasis on Sir Walter Scott than on Robert Burns. Your book index shows a
more than two-to-one ratio of references in favor of Scott. What brought
you to your evidently very high appreciation of Scott?
Well, Scott was truly a figure of international significance when he died,
whereas Burns remained almost unknown outside the British Isles. That is
not a judgment call; itís just a fact. Robert Burns is very beloved to
Scots and his poetry has a deep affinity with Scottish culture; heís an
important mirror of the Scottish soul, if I can put it that way. But there
is no comparison in their larger impact - nor to the impact of Lord Byron,
for that matter, a truly wayward Scot, whose poetry also changed the world
of European music. Just think how many operas or musical scores were
inspired by either Scott or Byron, and you get some idea of what cultural
impact they had.
Q: You state that drinking cut short
the life of Burns. It is well established that Burns had a heart condition
his entire life. Did you consider any of the other possibilities that are
put forth today by many Burns scholars that he died of a heart condition
called rheumatic endocarditis (a bacterial infection of the lining of the
heart), brucellosis (fever over a two-year period that could have come
from contaminated milk), or pneumonia (caused from his doctorís order that
he spend weeks sea-bathing in cold water when he was too weak to even
walk)? If so, how did you decide that drinking led to his death?
A: I donít think there is any
denying that his alcoholism made all his health problems much worse than
they had to be, and he must have known it.
Q: In the book, you state that "his
(Burns) failure also drove him to drink, cutting short his life at
thirty-five." What exactly do you mean by "his failure"?
see Burns as a deeply unhappy figure, someone who very early on got a
taste of true literary celebrity from the Edinburgh culturati. And then
when he began to write poems that really mattered to him, they dropped him
like a stone. Thereís a willful self-destructiveness that runs all through
his life, based on that conviction that he was a failure, a failure in the
eyes of the world he largely despised but still needed for its approval,
and for no fault of his own. What a terrible dilemma!
Q: You write that Burns died at age
thirty-five. Please explain why you use that figure when all of the Burns
scholars I have read, even the three you reference in your bibliography -
James Mackay, David Daiches and Hugh Douglas - put him at thirty-seven
since he was born January 25, 1759 at Alloway and died in Dumfries on July
Youíre right! That was a mistake that shouldnít have gotten to the
printer. But it is corrected in time for the paperback, which is coming
out the 24th of this month (September), by the way.
Q: Is there another book in the
works from Arthur Herman? If so, do you care to tell us what it is about
or when it will be published?
Yes, my next book is on the British navy, as a force for change in modern
history. There will be a fair number of Scots in that one as well, as you
might guess - but there are also some interesting little tidbits in it as
well - such as the fact George Washingtonís home, Mount Vernon, was named
after a British Admiral, Sir Edward Vernon, and that the man who was
responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor was not Japanese at all, but a
British naval aviator - and a Scot to boot!
Q: Can we look for you at the Stone
Mountain Highland Games in October?
this year, but maybe next.
Q: I wish to thank you for the
courtesies extended to me in conducting this interview. Is there a last
word you would like to leave with the readers of The Family Tree?
A: Yes, I should thank
everyone who bought the book and read it, and the many people who sent
letters telling me how much they enjoyed it. Itís been the biggest thrill
of this whole adventure.
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