The Obscene, Drivelling Blockhead

Ever had a bad review? Not like this, I hope. In October 1824, The Edinburgh Magazine, and Literary Miscellany published its opinion of John Mactaggart’s Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia, which had appeared earlier that year. This twelve-page hatchet job is remarkable for its violence even amongst the combustible and often highly personalised culture of 1820s periodical journalism. It wastes no time in preamble but gets straight to the matter at hand:

This is, beyond all question, the most extraordinary, not to say, monstrous production of the present age. That there are individuals capable of any extravagance may well be believed; but here the cause of astonishment is, that the press, accommodating as it is to every species of folly, should have become subservient to the purposes of such an obscene, drivelling blockhead as John Mactaggart.

Not only is Mactaggart’s book pseudo-science of the most supremely offensive nature, and an ‘extravagance’ foisted on the public by a venal conman, it is characteristic of an entire print culture that is too easily overtaken by ‘folly’. Such is the white heat of this review that it deserves to be quoted at length. Take, for example, these judgements on Mactaggart’s treatment of real-life women:

When we see the reputations of females trodden under the hoofs of this capricious, savage animal, to whose ears the groans of wounded modesty, and the profane laughter of the rabble, are music, and who exults in his headlong course, in proportion to the havoc and terror which he occasions, our indignation far exceeds our almost infinite contempt. It strikes us as a humiliating instance of the insecurity of human happiness, that the most drivelling ninny who can wield a pen, has it in his power to excruciate the feelings, and destroy the peace of mind, of the most intellectual and the most virtuous.

Still, you might reflect, at least the anonymous author refrains from wishing his adversary dead …? I’m afraid not. Following a discussion of Mactaggart’s account of his education, which involved being ‘lashed up stairs and down stairs’, the author writes:

To have been lashed out of existence for stupidity would, in his case, have been the most natural death in the world; and as to the pedagogue who made the experiment, we “laud him for it,” and much regret that it did not succeed.

Later the reviewer, who is suggestively preoccupied by correct grammar, punctuation and orthography, takes aim at a print culture infected by ‘riff-raff gentry’. Yet for all its malice and sneering class prejudice, the Edinburgh Magazine’s review is a compelling literary performance in its own right. Like, perhaps, any such article, it takes an obvious measure of delight in the subject to hand, even if the reviewer claims to have quoted in merely a few pages ‘whatever is at all readable’ amongst Mactaggart’s ‘enormous mass of rubbish’. In the end, having gone on to disclaim the state of Scottish literature at large, in which John Mactaggart is symptomatic of a wider attempt to cash in on the popularity of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, it closes with this reassuring statement:

We have felt it our duty to expose the secrets of this species of writing, and its utter worthlessness, as practised by a few imposters; and, for the sake of our national reputation, and of good taste, we sincerely trust that the appearance of The Gallovidian Encyclopedia will bring it into utter and irretrievable discredit.

And yet, while Mactaggart’s Encyclopedia was quickly withdrawn in response to complaints about its content, and while it has indeed been largely neglected over the last two centuries, beyond some recognition as a source document for linguists interested in regional Scots dialect, it is a neglected masterpiece capable of significantly reshaping how we regard the literary culture of this period. The Edinburgh Magazine’s review wilfully disregards the nature of Mactaggart’s text by insisting on receiving it only as a work of serious scholarship. By that standard, it undoubtedly fails. But the Gallovidian Encyclopedia is a text that challenges, blurs and frankly annihilates conventional notions of genre. This condition and the book’s major contribution to the literature of southwest Scotland 1770-1830, not to mention to matters of writing and regionality at large, will be the subject of the next phase of project research over the coming months.

Title page of the 1824 first edition of Mactaggart’s Encyclopedia

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