Sunday, August 15, 2021

This Day in Literary History (Sir Walter Scott, Father of the Historical Novel—and Object of Twain Scorn—Born)

Aug. 15, 1771— Sir Walter Scott, who fostered Scottish pride with his vast output of novels, poems, plays and histories, pioneered the historical novel as a genre, and served as an example to later authors and how to gain and lose a fortune, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.

In a prior post, I discussed how Hollywood has looked to Scott properties like Ivanhoe and Rob Roy for content, and how Mark Twain took a various revenge on him for polluting the consciousness of the antebellum South with fake notions of medieval chivalry by sending the steamboat The Walter Scott to a watery grave in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It wasn’t until I read Ray Perman’s essay from last weekend’s edition of The Financial Times that I discovered that Twain, to his mortification, had more in common (besides the resort to pen names early in his career) than he would have liked with Scott: i.e., spendthrift ways and foolhardy investments that almost capsized the fortune he made from his work.

As I explained in this post from seven years ago, Twain, once he achieved success, built a 19-room red mansion whose whimsical design—filled with turrets, balconies, verandas and embrasures—also looks, from a certain angle, like a steamboat. It was a reminder of the start of his professional career, as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. The kind of convivial lifestyle he enjoyed in the house was a New England version of what Scott possessed at Abbotsford, his fantasy castle.

Both Scott and Twain came into their fortunes during economic booms that followed convulsive wars: The Napoleonic Wars in Scott’s Great Britain, to the Civil War in Twain’s America. Both writers numbered industrial magnates among their close friends.

Rash investments led both Scott and Twain to insolvency. Scott saw the foundation of his fortune rocked by reverses in three companies, while Twain poured $300,000 ($6 million in today’s currency) into the Paige Compositor, a typesetting machine so complex (with 18,000 parts) that only one was successfully built. Both authors worked frenetically to extricate themselves from bankruptcy: Scott through writing (nine books in his last six years), and Twain through an intensive worldwide lecture tour.

Other 19th century authors (notably, Washington Irving) were transatlantic celebrities who made money off their works, but Scott and Twain pointed the way on new, influential means of doing so. Scott helped pay (at least for a while) the expenses on his home through publishers’ advances before he had sat down in earnest to write some titles. Twain found that his lectures (often crafted with specific audiences in mind) not only boosted his career at the start but also were useful in publicizing his new books.

Each author also heavily influenced the development of literature in their country. Scott did so by pioneering historical fiction as a genre through his so-called “Waverly Novels” (named for the book that thrust him into the limelight in the first place), inserting fictional characters into real-life events. Though Twain was hardly the first American author to use dialect, he was the first to use it naturally so that, even today, the speech of his characters remains recognizable.

No comments: