As its title promises, this book advances the fields of literary reception, cultural memory, and poetic afterlife. Rarely have I so enjoyed a work of scholarship. Much of the book's appeal comes from its cogent analysis of surprising materials: jousting tournaments inspired by Ivanhoe; tombstones erected for
fictional characters; cities, streets,
steam-boats, and locomotives named after Scott and his books; architectural imitations of Scott's home; dramatic reenactments of Scott's funeral procession; advertisements for cleaning products graced by Scott's portrait; and monuments to Scott strewn across the English-speaking world. John Sutherland captures this variety of materials well in his TLS review of the book. Rather than duplicate his buoyant survey here, I aim to emphasize Rigney's most absorbing and portable arguments, agreeing with Sutherland's observation that "most useful...are the instruments [Rigney] uses--and how one can borrow and make use of them oneself." As I hope to make clear, this is an important book, not just an amusing one. With erudition and extensive research, it promises no less than a "history to modern memory" (9), and it offers tools for analyzing the long-term reception of many books and authors.
Afterlives reflects Rigney's longstanding interests in memory studies and the philosophy of history. It has taken shape in a series of articles and presentations about Scott, commemoration, media, and modernization over the last decade plus. Now all this work culminates in a comprehensive package, and it is worth the wait. While accumulating provocative facts and turns of thought, it highlights three interrelated categories: the multi-mediated nature of literary afterlife, the workings of cultural memory, and the importance of such memory in the definition and preservation of communities. Each category comes with its own terminology and illustrations.
First of all, Rigney claims, the "social lives" of literature reach far beyond the printed page (11). Monuments to authors, commemorative festivals, literary paintings, theatrical adaptations, and (nowadays) television shows and movies are just a few of literature's most visible haunts. But literary scholars, Rigney insists, have slighted such things, tenaciously assuming "not only that the proper unit of cultural analysis is a discrete text, but also that adaptations, imitations, and tie-ins are merely derivative forms of culture" (50). "Methodological textualism," she concludes, fails to see how literature works on audiences over time.
Thus far, Rigney's argument sounds like a typical defense of cultural studies, but her focus on memory gives her polemic unique edge and specificity. Taking seriously the idea that literature thrives most outside of books, Rigney describes processes of literary dissemination and enshrinement that most models of canon-formation neglect or fail to explain adequately. Through history, she contends, many books have enjoyed a place in "general cultural memory," known even among non-readers by reputation or mass-cultural references. If you want to measure the impact of an author, Rigney argues, it is not enough to cite sales figures, edition counts, or the evidence of contemporary reviews. You must "examine the intensity with which [a given literary] work was replicated in other cultural expressions" (51). In short, you must take stock of books' "procreativity," or their ability to "generate new versions of [themselves] in other people's acts of productive remembrance" (50). Essentially, Rigney offers a Darwinian model: successful texts beget other texts--in a variety of media. She thus prompts us to consider not only multi-mediality but also intermediality, or cross-fertilization and content transfer between different media. Scott's stories, she observes, found themselves "reproduced and transformed on many platforms," reaching the public by means of visual art, theater, and many other sorts of "remediations" (50).
But some texts, as Scott's history demonstrates, are remediated more than others, and generally only the most prolific remain at the front of public consciousness. To elaborate this point, Rigney taps into a large body of scholarship on cultural memory. One of the most useful concepts emerging from such work is the principle of mnemonic economy. Drawing on the writings of Jan Assman, Michel Foucault, and Pierre Nora, Rigney stresses that cultural memory is purposefully selective, focusing its energy on a limited number of sites, investing maximum meaning in a minimal number of adaptable and reusable signs. The symbols that endure are those best able to capture and transmit the values and self-image of a given society. Besides illuminating literary history, this notion of a powerful but restricted mnemonic repertoire also helps explain the persistence of national myths, the development of collective memories that define religious communities, and so on. Remembrances of Scott, for instance, eventually coalesced around just a few novels, locations, and characters, as well on his person. The literary canon itself grows out of mnemonic narrowing, as Rigney hints when she speaks of Victorians' worries about preserving Scott's reputation in light of their sense that "canonicity works by replacement" (201). Arguably, Scott was himself replaced when Blake entered the canon of a Romanticism newly defined in terms of experimental lyric poetry. Since the Romantic syllabus apparently could not accommodate more than a "Big Six," Scott fell out, resulting in a long stretch of neglect for Scott specifically and Romantic fiction generally.
Of course the process of mnemonic narrowing was not the only reason for Scott's decline in reputation. Rigney lists several, including the evolution of aesthetic and critical trends, a perception that Scott had been celebrated to death, and a broad Modernist rejection of Victorian icons. By the time Rigney reaches the Modernist period (somewhere around World War I), she has walked considerable ground. One important contribution of this book, as Rigney sees it, is its charting of cultural history over an extended period (9). It chronicles "the Scott Century," ranging from the 1814 publication of Waverley to the 1932 centennial of Scott's death. Through this chronology, Rigney shows how the history of Scott comes to illustrate the long-term dynamics of memory and forgetting.
Forgetting, indeed, can never be absent from a discussion of Scott's place in literary history. If Scott was once incredibly successful and considered second only to Shakespeare, how has he become, until recently, "the Great Unread"? Scott himself, Rigney proposes, set the stage for his obsolescence. The Waverley novels showed how the past could be diffused and put to rest, immobilized as an object of reflection and display. Ironically, our conviction that we have to remember the past in order to leave it behind (a disturbing idea when applied to, say, Holocaust memorials or American Civil Rights museums) may be one of Scott's most enduring legacies, and it is one that applies to him personally. By the end of the nineteenth century, Scott had become a writer to remember, commend, and forget. The author who signified "history" for many readers subsequently became a symbol of all that was moth-eaten, surpassed, and out of style. Arguably, it was also Scott who first showed the mass-culture market the meaning of obsolescence: one bestseller had to give way for the next. On the dark side of mnemonic economy, the modern public had a limited attention span. So, Rigney observes, "[t]here was an underlying contradiction in supposing that [Scott's] own status would be immutable" (200). Even as admirers marked his death and planned elaborate monuments in 1832, they wondered how long his "immortality" could last, and they were right to do so. Such is the message of Rigney's final chapter.
Yet as Rigney stresses, the afterlives of Scott show how book-love can bring people together and inspire communities. While twentieth-century theorists have repeatedly noted that war, trauma, and disaster have forged group identities, few, Rigney notes, have explored the binding powers of common pleasures (14). By contrast, nineteenth-century thinkers acknowledged their collective debts to authors, using literary celebrations to define and fortify communities across the English-speaking world. Such communities, Rigney emphasizes, were not merely imaginary. Affiliations began with shared reading experiences, as predicted by Benedict Anderson and others, but books often brought people face to face in public performances of affections and loyalties (73).
Scott inspired such performances on an uncommon scale, Rigney writes, because he functioned as an Erinnerungsfigur, a figure of memory, and his name "became shorthand for a whole package of experiences and values" (14). Because Scott represented heritage in the abstract, naming places after Scott or his books was a way of transplanting a sense of history and culture to places that seemed not to have it. It is no coincidence that towns and streets with Scott-inspired names dot North America. Immigrant populations quite consciously aimed to make themselves feel at home by calling on Scott. Precisely because Scott's stories were portable--here is another paradox of modernity--they became anchors of stability. Similar observations could be made about the works of Shakespeare, Burns, and other beloved authors.
The story of Scott's transnational popularity suggests a fresh model for transnational studies of "English" literature. By means of its case studies, Rigney's book concretizes what many scholars have recently sensed--namely, that Anglophone literary culture generally tells us more than literature itself does about transatlantic exchanges and identities. As understood in Britain, the United States, and all of the British Empire, the field of literary culture from Scott's time to the early twentieth century included literary pilgrimages, interviews with authors, illustrators' interpretations, literary landscapes, monuments, and many other manifestations of enthusiasm. Scott was possibly the most read and most remediated author in the English-speaking world. He thus became a central figure in the "English" tradition as understood by readers on both sides of the ocean, and clearly his influence on mentalities was tremendous and pervasive.
The Scott canon served as a lingua franca for communities that desperately needed one, especially in America. In the young United States, such forces of cultural cohesion were especially crucial. Communities could not easily develop blood-and-soil models of belonging; political ideals worked against such constructions of identity, and in any case traditional forms of rootedness made little sense in a place where people were constantly moving and nearly everyone came from someplace else. In America, Rigney argues, belonging had to mean sharing experiences, literacies, and adopted ideals (197). Consequently, Americans became people of the book in more than the usual sense. Besides revering the Bible and the Constitution, they prized "English" literature. To be a cultured person in nineteenth-century America was to be bookish, and to be a bookish person was to be, among other things, a reader of Sir Walter Scott. To Scott and to the larger Anglophone tradition he represented, then, we can look for key sources of American identity and what later came to be known as the "special relationship" between the U.S. and the U.K. "Arguably," Rigney writes, "the arts had a more important part to play in forging alliances . . . than did the remembrance of military and political victories" (197).
As noted above, one of the oddities Rigney identifies is that fictions so closely linked to place (especially Scotland) should be so portable and adaptable. But since the Waverley Novels foregrounded mobility, marginal cultural identity, and the negotiation of difference, they became handy immigrant fictions, easy for dislocated groups to identify with. These books provided what Rigney calls "narrative templates" that various groups could adopt. This is why nationalist movements in Europe could use the Waverley Novels as inspirations (108) and why arguments about Scott's legacy became mixed up in the history of the American Civil War.
Rigney takes seriously Mark Twain's famous suggestion that Walter Scott had caused the Civil War. While predictably concluding that Twain oversimplified his point, she demonstrates that Scott's work--especially Ivanhoe, as Twain hinted--was a "facilitator" of the conflict, a vessel of cultural memory that inspired cultural practices in the South (117). Before the war, Scott was as popular in the North as in the South, but afterwards, certain kinds of Southern nostalgia linked him with regional values coded as admirable but sadly obsolete. (Here enter the jousting tournaments mentioned earlier--precursors, Rigney suggests, of today's Civil War reenactments.) Scott's fiction furnished the logic for dignifying a "lost cause" (119). Even before the cause was lost, Scott provided blueprints for articulating a distinctly Southern nationalism. For example, one 1860 magazine article drew on Ivanhoe's template to assert racial differences between Northerners and Southerners, linking the latter to the British aristocracy and ultimately to England's Norman conquerors (114--15). (This kind of discourse helps explain Harper Lee's joke at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird: the Finch family, though prosperous and established, felt some embarrassment because it could not trace its genealogy back to the Battle of Hastings.) Such racialization of cultural difference is one disturbing aspect of Scott's influence that persisted all the way to the early twentieth century, when Thomas Dixon wrote The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) and D.W. Griffith adapted it to the screen in Birth of a Nation (1915), a film which advertised itself in images traceable to Ivanhoe (125).
While noting that the word "clan" conjures up the Highland Jacobites of Waverley, noble rebels against an imperial, commercial, modernizing power (124), Rigney is quick to point out that Scott would not have recognized or approved many of the uses to which his work was put; his legacy in the American South simply exemplifies how literary templates can be appropriated for miscellaneous and incompatible projects.
One comes away from this book imagining similar studies that could be made of other authors with powerful legacies, such as Wordsworth, Byron, and Dickens. Scholars have been providing admirable pieces of such puzzles for some years--think of Andrew Elfenbein's Byron and the Victorians (1995), Stephen Gill's Wordsworth and the Victorians (1998), Tom Mole's Byron's Romantic Celebrity (2007), Juliet John's Dickens and Mass Culture (2011), and so on--but it is a great service to define the questions such studies share and to combine many of their key insights in one spot. This Rigney has done; moreover, rather than addressing problems specific to Scott studies alone (though this is probably the most important book on Scott since Ian Duncan's Scott's Shadow ), Rigney asks us to consider some of the largest problems in our field. What do we mean when we use the word "literature"? What are the proper materials and inquiries to occupy a work of literary scholarship? How do works of literature gain large readerships and keep them across spaces and generations? How can we make forgotten books "legible" for today's students? It may be, Rigney tells us, that scholars need to think more seriously and creatively about the way literature comes to occupy everyday life. The history of Walter Scott--the story of a spectacular success as well as one of literary history's greatest and most surprising disappearing acts--can help us begin to answer such questions.
Paul Westover is Assistant Professor of English at Brigham Young University, Utah, U.S.A.