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JAMES HOGG AND BRITISH ROMANTICISM: A KALEIDOSCOPIC ART. By Meiko O'Halloran. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 308 p.

Meiko O'Halloran exploits the kaleidoscope as an extended metaphor throughout her book to describe the complexity of James Hogg's writing, characterised by the merging of various literary genres, quite experimental for the Romantic period, with the aim of placing this Scottish author amongst and at the same level of the most canonical ones of the era such as Wordsworth, Byron, Southey, and Scott. Hogg's experimentalism with literary forms and his awareness of the rules of the early nineteenth-century literary marketplace, O'Halloran explains, place him as a central figure in British Romanticism. O'Halloran contends that Hogg's engagement with the literary marketplace of the period made him experiment with the possibilities offered by the miscellany and the anthology genres, typical of the nineteenth-century periodical press. These genres, O'Halloran points out, influenced Hogg's literary style which can thus be best described as "kaleidoscopic," similarly to the instrument invented by David Brewster in 1816. A viewer could assemble the parts of this fascinating tool in an infinite number of ways, enabling them to see a wide range of images and objects. O'Halloran uses the kaleidoscope to describe the plethora of literary genres with which Hogg experimented: from the novel to the long narrative poem; from the celebratory poem to the parodic genre; from the short story to the essay. O'Halloran is successful in building her argument throughout the book, as the kaleidoscope metaphor elegantly describes the complexity of one of the most prolific authors of the Romantic period.

O'Halloran's book offers a panoramic view of this neglected author, mostly known for his novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by showcasing Hogg's incredible achievements in less known works. At Hogg's time of writing, the combination of Hogg's humble background and the role of contemporary reviewers, who controlled the success or the failure of an author according to nineteenth-century rules of politeness and Englishness, contributed to a biased reception of this writer. Hogg's themes, ranging from the violence of war to the negative consequences of the imperial rule on the labouring classes, destabilised the dominant discourse supported by the periodical press in which Hogg mostly published and which reviewed Hogg's other works. O'Halloran's monograph hence contributes to highlighting and revaluing the multifaceted creativity of Hogg.

In chapter one, "Hogg's Self-Positioning in The Poetic Mirror and the Literary Marketplace" (16-58), O'Halloran contends that in this collection of poems which, as the title Poetic Mirror suggests, imitate and, sometimes, exaggerate the style of the most popular poets of the period, Hogg poses himself as "a participant in, and a critical viewer of, the literary marketplace" (16). When first published in 1816 Hogg's parodies, O'Halloran points out, incited an active participation on the part of contemporary readers who had to recognise whether the poems were an imitation or had actually been written by the real authors, as The Poetic Mirror was published anonymously. In this collection, O'Halloran explains, Hogg went beyond the Romantic ideal of poet as "primitive prophet, projected onto sublime or barren landscapes"(23) as, instead, he presented "the modern bards" as "commercial competitors in a dynamic new world of print" (23). O'Halloran remarks that in The Poetic Mirror by drawing on various literary forms such as parody, satire and imitation, Hogg both established himself among the canon of contemporary poets and critiqued "their chosen path to posterity" (35). O'Halloran's choice of this collection as kaleidoscopic image of Hogg's poetics is particularly successful as it portrays the perception of Hogg both by himself and his contemporary reviewers and writers: Hogg wished to be accepted as part of the circle of select authors of the time but he was also critical, as O'Halloran argues, of "the self-importance of many celebrated poets of his day" (36). The Poetic Mirror thus "exemplifies Hogg's complicated sense of himself as both an insider and an outsider" (46).

In chapter two, "Hogg's Eighteenth-Century Inheritance: The Queen's Wake, National Epic, and Imagined Ancestries" (59-113), O'Halloran presents Hogg's collection of poems arising from a "sixteenth-century bardic contest" (61) at the court of Mary Queen of Scots during Christmas time as a tool for both "gain[ing] admission to his present-day literary marketplace, and a national epic" (61), merging old and modern Scottish literary forms in order to fashion Scotland's "identity as a modern commercial nation" (60). When describing The Queen's Wake, O'Halloran uses the term "epic" to portray Hogg's ambition to present the collection of poems as both "a narrative of national origins and a national model of poetry which expresses an idea of Scotland's powerful identity and aspirations" (62).

Chapter three, "By Accident and Design: Burn, Shakespeare and Hogg's Kaleidoscopic Techniques, from the Theatre and The Poetic Mirror to Queen Hynde" (114-177), explores the influence of these two famous authors on Hogg's writing. Here, O'Halloran argues that not only the "Romantic cult of Shakespeare as a natural genius" but also "Shakespeare's ... personal resilience in the face of adversity" profoundly inspired Hogg (123-124). The Hunting of Badlewe, a play that Hogg composed in 1814, showcases his ambition for the theatre and "his experiments with dramatic form and convention" which, O'Halloran contends, "shaped his kaleidoscopic techniques" (127). Nonetheless, the work was not well received because "no one expected autodidact labourers to write historical tragedies for educated urban audiences" (127).

In chapter three, O'Halloran explores one of Hogg's most ambitious works: the long narrative poem Queen Hynde (1824), where Hogg "move[s] the shepherd-poet out of the pastoral tradition and into the epic" (153). In this work Hogg claims his own rules, "refusing to conform to the expectations of a particular genre" (157), and demanding his contemporary readers "to accept Hogg's faults and to recognise their own" (158). Most importantly, in this "eclectic mock epic" Hogg explores issues of "kingship, sovereignty, legitimacy, and the plight of individuals who must negotiate their place in a disordered society ... strik[ing] a blow at rigid social and literary hierarchies" (169).

Chapter four, "Exploding Authority and Inheritance: Reading the Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a Kaleidoscopic Novel" (178-216), offers a fresh interpretation of Hogg's most famous novel published in 1824. O'Halloran remarks that here, Hogg explodes the family metaphor that Edmund Burke utilises in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) to promote the nuclear foundation of the British nation "as the touchstone for the preservation of harmonious social order and hierarchy" (192). Burke argued for the "patriarchal politics of the family" as model for a strong nation, where the king would pose as the father and the queen "as a mother, to whom citizens owed unquestioned filial obedience" (192). O'Halloran points out that the protagonist of Hogg's Confessions explodes Burke's discourse of nation as family by committing fratricide, matricide, and leaving his estate into a complete ruin.

In the final chapter, "Imploding the Nation: Aesthetic Conflict in Tales of the Wars of Montrose" (217-255), O'Halloran further explores Hogg's deconstruction of the family metaphor, "[t]he destructive internal dynamics" of which are now "turned against itself " (217). In these stories, O'Halloran remarks, Hogg captures the fragility of a nation going through the literary market crash of 1825-26 and the political unrest caused by the Reform Bill of 1832. Hogg's experiments with fractured voices are particularly strong in these tales, exposing "the multiple perspectives of characters who are swept up in the cyclical conflict of a nation which is at war with itself" (220).

O'Halloran's book is in conversation with other recent Hogg studies such as Ian Duncan's Scott's Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton University Press, 2007), which explores Hogg's accounts of regional, national, and imperial history; Penny Fielding's Writing and Orality: Nationality, Culture, and Nineteenth-Century Scottish Fiction (Clarendon Press, 1996), which investigates Hogg's ideas of nationality through the relationship between writing and orality in nineteenth-century definitions of "culture"; Fielding's subsequent book, Scotland and the Fictions of Geography: North Britain 1760-1830 (Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, 2011), where she considers how Scottish Romantic authors, and Hogg among the others, expose the roles of England and Scotland in the construction of the British nation. O'Halloran's book is also in line with the ideas that Douglas S. Mack develops in Scottish Fiction and the British Empire (Edinburgh University Press, 2006) as Mack's book evaluates Hogg voicing the margins; and two further essay collections: James Hogg and the Literary Marketplace: Scottish Romanticism and the Working-Class Author, edited by Sharon Alker and Holly Faith Nelson (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009) which, similarly to Mack, investigates Hogg as a working-class author who challenged the aesthetic conventions of other contemporary writers; and The Edinburgh Companion to James Hogg (Edinburgh Companions to Scottish Literature, 2012), edited by Ian Duncan and Douglas S. Mack, which displays 16 essays on the contexts and debates that shaped Hogg's writings. O'Halloran's monograph adds to this conversation by focusing on "Hogg's centrality to British Romanticism through his radical experiments with literary form and his creative reconfiguration and parodic interrogation of the values of the early nineteenth-century literary marketplace" (1-2). O'Halloran focus on Hogg's reinvention of particular literary genres and his effort to "prompt readers to exercise their own critical reflexes" (2) makes her book an important contribution to Hogg studies.

Yet, as the kaleidoscopic metaphor well purports, O'Halloran's book will also interest critics researching the experimentalism of postmodern fiction, as well as those scholars fascinated by the political activism of postcolonial texts. O'Halloran's volume, in fact, highlights how Hogg's use of multiple perspectives anticipated literary strategies typical of the postmodern period, while Hogg's denouncement of the poor treatment of the margins is in line with the social and anti-racist activism of postcolonial studies.


Independent Scholar, London
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Author:Leonardi, Barbara
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019

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