Five Questions: Gerard Lee McKeever on Dialectics of Improvement

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Gerard Lee McKeever is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, where he is currently completing a project on Regional Romanticism. His published essays examine authors including James Hogg, Allan Cunningham, James Fenimore Cooper and John Galt, and he has worked extensively on Robert Burns, publishing several articles and chapters and contributing research to the Oxford Edition. His collection Cultures of Improvement in Scottish Romanticism, 1707-1840 (edited with Alex Benchimol) was published by Routledge in 2018. His first monograph, Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831, which we discuss below, was published by Edinburgh University Press in March.

1) How did you first become interested in unpicking the dialectics of improvement?

As soon as I began researching this period of Scottish literature some years ago I was struck by how ubiquitous improvement was. To say that there was a zeitgeist around the idea of improvement in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is a bit of an understatement when you grapple with the force and breadth of its applications. I wanted to think specifically about the complexity as much as about particular manifestations of the term – to try to dig into the messiness of improvement as a cultural phenomenon.

At the same time, the book emerged out of my longstanding interest in the politics of the aesthetic. The discussion circles back to a question of what was happening to the form and function of literature in the period. In a sense, the book’s underlying premise is that you cannot really talk about literary innovation in Romantic-era Scotland (and indeed much further afield) without also talking about improvement.

I should also mention that I was lucky to be part of a fertile research culture at the University of Glasgow while working on this book. A number of colleagues in the School of Critical Studies had been producing new research on aspects of improvement and the concept became a kind of intellectual lodestone for us.

Finally, I think the history of improvement is a meaningful way of thinking about the present day. I largely resist the urge to introduce our current political and environmental predicaments into this book, but the question of improvement around the turn of the nineteenth century is unavoidably salient. We are still asking many of the same questions: What should ‘improvement’ look like? Do we want it and, if so, how do we achieve it? Who specifically benefits? What are acceptable costs?

2) What for you are the most important ways that improvement was characterised in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and to what extent would you trace major shifts in public attitudes across the period you examine (1786-1831)?

Above all, I emphasise the startling plurality of improvement as an economic, moral, intellectual, spiritual, political, technological, scientific and aesthetic practice and ideal. It was applicable to everything in the period from manure recipes to landscape painting, from world history to poetic diction to sheep breeding.

However, improvement had emerged in the seventeenth century as, first and foremost, a matter of increasing the productivity of the land. From there, it became a way of describing more diverse processes of commercial modernisation – my book builds on work by Raymond Williams and others that posits improvement as, in effect, the root discourse of capitalism. At the same time, the book explores the moral as a cardinal expression of improvement. Moral and economic forms of improvement could work in concert (as in, ‘civilisation’) but there is also a moral case made repeatedly against improvement in the period. Finally, and this gets at what is the more interesting dynamic to me, moral improvement could offer an alternative model of progress that was explicitly opposed to the track of commercial modernisation. As that suggests, improvement as a field was not just diverse but in many instances contradictory – some improvements counteract, correct and undermine others.

Fierce contestation had long been true of improvement but there is a new proliferation of the culture – and a hardening of criticisms of it – in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By the 1820s, the ubiquity and variety of improvement had become a commonplace, a running joke, just as the economic crisis of that decade was prompting new scepticism about improvement’s Whiggish assumptions. As we might expect, opinion on improvement was often dependent on specific historical moments and on local circumstances: Robert Burns’s view of improvement, for example, bears the influence of the bad harvests of 1783-84 just as it does the religious debates that constituted an Ayrshire Enlightenment.

3) How did you choose the four case studies that provide the foci of your chapters (Robert Burns’s ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’; tales by James Hogg and Walter Scott; plays by Joanna Baillie; and the ‘non-fictional fiction’ of John Galt)?

These reflect what I think are some of the most significant examples of aesthetic innovation in Scottish literature in the period. All four studies see writers doing something substantively new with literary genre in dialogue with ideas of improvement. I wanted to range across different kinds of writing but this is not a particularly long book and much of its thesis is far more broadly applicable. At the same time, the study of literature and improvement highlights the contingency of historical bookends – it is not at all clear that we have exited the ‘Age of Improvement’ yet.

I was very keen to include Joanna Baillie, whose significance is still under-appreciated. There has been quite a lot of important work on her now by feminist scholars and by theatre historians but there is more to do, especially in the context of Scottish studies. I suppose John Galt is the other name people may be slightly less familiar with, though his star is very much on the rise again – Angela Esterhammer’s Edinburgh University Press edition of Galt promises to cement that in the next few years.

4) To what extent did Scottish contexts determine the particular ways in which ‘the complex, productive relationship between improving discourse and the aesthetic’ played out in the writers you examine?

Each of the four major studies in the book reflect idiosyncratic aesthetic choices made by writers responding to individual sets of circumstances. Improvement itself was always inflected by local, regional and national contexts, just as it also transcended borders to describe processes of modernisation that were global in extent.

Taking that into account, it has long been clear that Scotland did generate a distinctive experience of improvement for a number of reasons, perhaps above all the rapid phases of socioeconomic modernisation that began in the 1760s. Scotland provided the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with an object lesson in uneven development, apparently a strange mix of backwardness and transformation. It is also of course significant that some of the major theorists and practitioners of improvement were connected with what we might call the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, not least (when thinking specifically about 1786-1831) John Sinclair, whose 1790s first Statistical Account of Scotland provides my book with one its guiding models of improvement. Equally, Scotland’s relationship to Britain and Britishness again nuanced the tenor of improvement, since ‘progress’ was so often tangled up in a question of national identity, with a sense that national culture itself might be eroded by improvements constituted ideologically as ‘North British’. All of this helped to give the range of things improvement could mean a particular bearing in Scotland.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

My current book project is a study of ‘Regional Romanticism’ for Palgrave, focusing on the context of southwest Scotland, 1770-1830. It is an attempt to take ‘four nations’ and ‘archipelagic’ criticism a step further by thinking in more sustained ways about the regional as a site for interactions between local, national and global cultures. I have turned up a lot of really interesting, unfairly neglected material, although the book will also feature names that are more familiar to Romanticists including Burns, the Wordsworths and Keats.

As an outcrop of that work, I am currently editing a special issue of Studies in Scottish Literature on the Solway Firth, which is bringing together scholars interested in that area, where a number of regional and national communities collide. Equally, I am collaborating with David Stewart on an edition of the writer and sculptor Allan Cunningham. There is remarkably little awareness of Cunningham now given how significant a figure he was in the nineteenth century – we want to address that.

Finally, I will shortly be taking up a new position at the University of Stirling as Research Fellow on Katherine Halsey and Matthew Sangster’s AHRC-funded ‘Books and Borrowing, 1750-1830’. This large-scale project is working with historic borrowing registers from fourteen Scottish libraries and promises to deepen our sense of the actual experience of literary culture in the period.