BARS-UCSL Scottish Romanticism Research Award Report – Gerard McKeever on John Galt

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We are delighted to publish this report by Gerard Lee McKeever, the latest winner of the Scottish Romanticism Research Award. Postgraduates and postdoctoral scholars working in any area of Scottish literature (1740-1830) may apply for the jointly funded BARS-UCSL Scottish Romanticism Research Award.  The executive committees of the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS) and the Universities Committee for Scottish Literature (UCSL) have established the award to help fund expenses incurred through travel to Scottish libraries and archives, including universities other than the applicant’s own, up to a maximum of £300. For information on how to apply see here

Sketch of John Galt by Daniel Maclise (1830)

In June 2022, the BARS-UCSL Scottish Romanticism Research Award enabled me to spend a week working on John Galt’s correspondence in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

This research trip was in support of my forthcoming volume for the ‘Edinburgh Edition of the Works of John Galt’ (series editor: Angela Esterhammer). I am editing Galt’s twin autobiographies, published in back-to-back years: The Autobiography of John Galt (1833) and The Literary Life, and Miscellanies, of John Galt (1834). My volume will be the first scholarly edition of either text: indeed the Literary Life has never been reprinted, and this will be the first unabridged reprinting of the Autobiography since the 1830s. Collectively, these texts represent the extraordinary diversity of Galt’s experiences, taking in Britain, North America, continental Europe and the Middle East. They move from his early years in Greenock to his acquaintance with Lord Byron and attempt to hijack the Elgin Marbles, from his parliamentary wrangling to his colonial project in Canada, not forgetting a ground-breaking theorisation of his literary practice.

The scope of the autobiographies presents a formidable editorial challenge, which involves working with as much as possible of Galt’s voluminous correspondence. Galt’s letters are scattered in various repositories in Britain and North America, but the bulk is in the NLS in Edinburgh. Some of these – particularly letters to the publisher William Blackwood, and examples from Galt’s Canadian years – are available in PhD theses by George Spencer Beasley (1951) and Jessie Kennedy Herreshoff (1988). Equally, the team of volume editors on the EUP ‘Works of Galt’ have begun sharing their own individual transcriptions taken from letters in various archives, although the number of these has been limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am very happy to report, then, that during my time in the NLS I was able to analyse, diplomatically transcribe and in some cases photograph well over one hundred letters to and from Galt. Correspondents include fellow authors such as Walter Scott, James Hogg, John Gibson Lockhart, David Macbeth Moir, Harriet Pigott and Allan Cunningham; publishers Archibald Constable, Thomas Cadell, William Davies, Thomas Oliver and George Boyd; and the painter David Wilkie. Subjects include the daily minutiae of visits and gossip; pitches and publisher rejections; wrangling over publishing deals; and details of Galt’s massive commercial concerns in Canada.

There are a number of particular highlights. For example, an 1830 letter to Hogg, written in a distinctively Blackwoodian register, in which Galt encourages Hogg to ‘add a few millions of years to your immortality’ by taking his muse to Canada, since: ‘The remarkable thing in the American Woods is, their entire freedom from fairies and all sorts of hobgoblins’. Equally, a series of letters to Moir in the early 1830s have proven enormously useful from the perspective of the autobiographies edition, since they cleared up burning questions about the publishing history of the texts.

The full significance of these letters will emerge over the coming years of editorial labour. I am working alongside a team of other volume editors on the EUP ‘Works of John Galt’ series, and am very well supported by Professor Esterhammer and her RAs at the University of Toronto. I have already shared the findings of this research trip with these colleagues and am sure that this leap forward in our understanding of Galt’s correspondence will be a significant boost to the series as a whole.

I am very grateful to both BARS and the Universities Committee for Scottish Literature for the generous award that made this trip possible.

Gerard Lee McKeever is Research Fellow on the AHRC-funded ‘Books and Borrowing 1750­–1830’ project at the University of Stirling, having been a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow between 2017 and 2020. He is the author of Dialectics of Improvement: Scottish Romanticism, 1786-1831 (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), which won the BARS First Book Prize 2021.