I’m reading James Hogg‘s The Three Perils of Man. Unlike Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, it is not very well known. Thanks to Andre Gide’s introduction to the 1945 publication Hogg’s portrayal of a man either corrupted by Satan or undergoing a psychological breakdown is recognised as an European classic. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner novel is now part of many University reading lists and an essential part of the Scottish literary canon. It is part of the consciousness of all reading people in Scotland, at least.
However, if you were a person with an avid interest in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and wished to read more of James Hogg’s work then for many, many years you would have struggled to find any more examples of his work. This lack of availability casts an aspersion on the unavailable work. Like Herman Melville whose inferior work is out of print, it suggests that Hogg’s other work is of a poorer standard and forgotten for a reason. His classic novel is a one-off, like Shelley’s Frankenstein; a peak that was never repeated by Hogg again.
Yet this is assumption is false. Hogg’s The Three Perils of Man stakes a very powerful claim for him to be recognised along with Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott as one of the three greatest prose writers that Scotland has produced.
Walter Scott may be Hogg’s superior in style and character; and Robert Louis Stevenson may be a greater stylist too; but there is a breadth and a depth of vision in Hogg’s work that goes beyond anything Walter Scott or Stevenson have produced.
In Hogg’s work, the style may be more simplistic, but the range and originality of genre exceeds his more renowned contemporary and famous subsequent. Not to make outrageous claims, yet he covers territory seldom approached in Literature, never mind Scottish Literaure: he explores issues concerning Christianity reminiscent of John Milton in Paradise Lost; he explores the nature of Satanic rebellion as the Romantics have; and he journeys into the same sort of territory as Goethe does with Faust. Although none are as profoundly done as the authors here mentioned, Hogg has one strength they do not – a very Scottish humour that is actually funny! (Unlike so many classic works of Literature that claim to be!) He does this while keeping an entertaining, fairly compelling narrative that covers not only Scottish Borders Peasant Absurdist Fantasy (the only genre I can make of it) and a historical chivalric romantic horror (again, the only genre I can think of). For the time, his work is bold, provocative and original. What else would you want?
Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that James Hogg is not given the merit he is due. Scott has a monument. Stevenson is everywhere. Yet Hogg’s achievement is greater than either’s. Hogg was born a peasant and remained illiterate until he was 18. He often had to leave his writing to work manually or as a shepherd.To have taught himself to read and write, and then to become a master storyteller and innovator, a writer of classics that can stand with any novelist in Europe, is an incredible achievement that would tax the determination of any writer.
This goes unrecognised now and then. Patronised by the Scottish literary establishment, he never achieved the credit his works deserved, being given the sneering title of ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’. Scott has his monument; Stevenson his statues and plaques. What does Hogg have? A portrait in the National Gallery. He does not even have his books in print…
Until this year. Fortunately, Hogg’s works are now in print again and people can explore his genius for themselves. Hopefully, they will and more of Hogg’s work will make its way on to school textbook lists, University courses, the reading of the general public, and maybe, finally, Hogg will take his place alongside Burns, Scott, Stevenson and Spark as one of Scotland’s greatest contributor to the Scottish canon and European Literature.
It’s about time.