Robert Burns and the United States of America: Poetry, Print, and Memory 1786-1866.
Since the early zolos, scholars in the fields of Scottish and Transatlantic Studies have been reappraising Robert Burns's legacy and influence in North America and the Caribbean; for instance, Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (2012), edited by Sharon Alker, Leith Davis and Holly Faith Nelson, sought to 'read Burns across the Atlantic' by addressing key concerns such as slavery and the American Revolution, as well as 'remediating' the poet's 'transatlantic cultural memory. Similarly, Robert Burns in Global Culture (2011), edited by Murray Pittock, assessed Burns's international reception as a truly global figure, with multiple zones and markers of influence. To this fruitful area of inquiry must be added Arun Sood's Robert Burns and the United States of America: Poetry, Print, and Memory 1786-1866, a work which seeks to interrogate the nature of the poet's appeal in the United States. Like its predecessors in Scottish and Transatlantic Studies, Robert Burns and the United States of America offers productive analysis of Burns's transatlantic reception, with close examination of American editions, reprints, poetic imitations and tributes, celebrations, and statuary from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Sood employs current theories of cultural memory to interpret this body of work, with the objective of refiguring Burns as a '(trans)national' rather than a solely national poet.
Sood begins this process by looking at 'Burns beyond Scotland', arguing that Burns had deep 'engagement with contemporary transatlantic affairs and international politics' (p. 3). This point is amply addressed in the book's first chapter, in which Burns's 'American works' in verse and correspondence are interpreted in depth. Of particular interest is the author's analysis of When Guilford Good', Burns's 'Ballad on the American War. Readers of this poem can attest to its extensive allusiveness to topical events, which Sood skillfully interprets and explains to highlight 'the hostile environment in which Burns was writing, where challenges to the political hegemony [...] would not go unpunished' (p. 19). In fact, the relative scarcity of 'American works' in Burns's oeuvre is attributed to this extratextual pressure for silence on the subject. While Sood does not delve deeply into the knotty issue of Burns's politics, he does demonstrate that Burns felt an affinity for American politicians, especially George Washington (for whom Burns wrote a birthday ode). These early chapters in Robert Burns and the United States of America make intriguing connections between Burns's political sentiments and his 'idea of what America stood for' (p. 38), resulting in largely successful analysis of this transatlantic dimension of the poet's work.
In part two of the book, entitled American Print Culture and Poets, Sood offers several interesting chapters on Burns's poetic reception in American newspapers, journals, reprints and biographies. The discussion of the early newspaper printings of Burns's verse reveals the author's valuable archival research, with fine asides on the American reception of poems like 'Man Was Made to Mourn' in venues such as the Pennsylvania Packet. Along similar lines is a detailed section on 'swift reprints' of Burns's Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1787) in the New York and Philadelphia markets, c. 1787-1788; this is followed by a discussion of biographical accounts by Robert Heron and James Currie in American editions of the poet's works. Sood seeks to rehabilitate the latter figure's biographical enterprise by arguing that Currie had a 'transnational agenda' (p. 64), one which was employed to meet the needs of a readership beyond Scotland. This is a fairly effective strategy, though it tends to mitigate the serious damage inflicted upon Burns's reputation by Currie's often tendentious biography, as well as the detrimental effects of the editor's frequent interpolations and omissions in his famous edition of Burns's Works (1800). Sood examines the reviews of this edition in several American venues, speculating that one found in The American Review and Literary Journal (1801) may have been written by the American novelist Charles Brockden Brown. In fact, Sood asserts that Brown may have been 'the first major American literary figure to engage with Burns in any great detail' (p. 67). Although Sood cannot definitively establish Brown's authorship, he reveals the 'amusement' and 'instruction' that the reviewer believes Burns's Works can afford fellow Americans (p. 68), sentiments found in other contemporaneous American reviews of Currie's edition.
The fourth chapter of the book explores other editions of Burns's work from 1801 to 1859, a list of which is helpfully included in the first appendix; as with previous chapters, the author's archival research reveals a proliferation of American editions, correspondence and biographies. There is a brief section on well-known figures like Thomas Carlyle and John Gibson Lockhart, as well as a discussion of the 'radical celebrity' of the New York printer William Pearson and 'Honest Allan' Cunningham, the notoriously mendacious editor and biographer of the poet. An obscure biography of Burns by Samuel Tyler, a 'Scottish-born Baltimore-based lawyer, is assessed as a peculiarly 'American' variation on the poet's life (p. 94). The American edition of Burns's works by Robert Chambers is also examined for its inclusion of the disputed poem 'The Liberty Tree' in the Burns canon; although Sood does not take a definitive stance on the poem's authorship, he sees it as 'a fitting microcosmic reminder of how the broader reputation of Burns in nineteenth-century America was continually reshaped and altered' (p. Ioi).
The remaining chapters of the book examine Burns's legacy and influence on American poets, from canonical figures like John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson to the lesser-known Robert Dinsmoor, an Ulster-Scot who emigrated to America and wrote Scots verse imitative of Burns. While the sections on the canonical American writer are perhaps overly familiar, they do provide detailed discussion of the lines of influence connecting Burns with 'American cultural memory, the subject of one of the book's last chapters. Sood examines differing appreciative expressions of this 'cultural memory' of the poet, ranging from Burns suppers and societies to statuary and literary tourism. The book closes with a chapter on the 'Burnsian Palimpsest and 1859 Centenary Celebrations, interpreting the wide range of commemorations of Burns's 'immortal memory' throughout the United States. In sum, Sood's book provides compelling testimony of Burns's transatlantic significance, adding to a growing body of important scholarship in Scottish and Transatlantic Studies.
Corey E. Andrews
Youngstown State University
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|Author:||Andrews, Corey E.|
|Publication:||Scottish Literary Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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