Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Why Don't People Read Ivanhoe Anymore?


Book Review
Sir Walter Scott
p. 1820
Oxford World's Classics Edition
p. 2008
by Ian Duncan

   For the purposes of this discussion, please assume that Sir Walter Scott was the 19th century equivalent of a George Lucas or Elton John: A certified maker of hits of the literary persuasion, and by certified I mean that the cover of Ivanhoe says by "SIR Walter Scott."  That isn't some made up bullshit 20th century knighthood either, in those days, Artists had to EARN their respect.

  Walter Scott earned his popularity by blending literary trends that were already well established (Gothic) with trends that were on the rise (Historical, Regional novels.)  He punched home the message with a smooth/"modern" awareness of novelistic conventions and a trendy setting, specifically SCOTLAND.  To the extent that a modern American has an awareness of Scotland outside of ancestry, that awareness probably owes some debt to the output of Sir Walter Scott.  For example, Scott was a huge influence on American Popular Song in the early 19th century, i.e. the beginning of the tradition of American Popular Song.

  However, Ivanhoe was a critical point in Scott's career, and it was critical in the fact that it was the exact moment when sales momentum (good) reached it's height and started to peter out AND critical momentum (bad) jumped on several stylistic choices that Scott made in an attempt to retain popular appeal.  The date of original publication, 1819, comes at the very height of Scott's popularity, but also represents the point at which his status as a contemporary novelist begins to decline.  As a work of art, Ivanhoe elicited a complex reaction, but it's status as a classic hit lasted for centuries.  That is, until,

 "The most popular novel of one of the best loved of British authors throughout the nineteenth century, in the twentieth it has come to represent the decay of an unfashionable literary monument. Today its dwindling popularity can no longer outweigh the neglect or disdain of professional readers.  According to the standard modern criticism, Ivanhoe executes the fatal turn in Scott's career from a once influential historical realism (in the novels about the making of modern Scotland) to a tinsel and tushery medievalism."

  I think one of the phenomenons of social aesthetics is the way that this book started out by being a popular hit in it's original format, and over time became recycled into different media (films, other novels) while the original artistic product became forgotten.  Specifically, I'm talking about how Ivanhoe is THE touchstone for the revival of "Robin Hood" stories.  All subsequent Robin Hood revivals derive from Ivanhoe.

   And although Ian Duncan doesn't really address it directly, the fact that Ivanhoe has a "Jewish" plot line that contains some cringingily awful stereotypes puts it squarely in the corner of questionable tasteful ethnic portrayals in the 19th century novel.  Certainly if you are going to be looking at assigning Ivanhoe or say, Rob Roy, you would pick Rob Roy because of the Scottish setting.

  Regardless of current popularity, the fact that a mere sub plot of Ivanhoe (Robin Hood) has become one of the most well re-told tales of the United Kingdom is a hardy testament to the enduring quality of this novel.  In his critical introduction, Duncan slyly alludes to Ivanhoe finding kinship with the hyper aware literary post modernism of Umberto Eco and I'd have to say that he wins the point in my book.  I did appreciate the fact that Scott just fucking plunges into the middle ages like a 19th century Hunter S. Thompson.  He is not going to get bogged down by niggling details, my friend.  He will create a heroine who is referred to as "the Jewess" and is quite literally saved from being burned at the stake for witch craft by a "Black Knight" who happens to be Richard the Lion Hearted, King of England (the Robin Hood story.)

       That actually happens in this book, and god bless us, we could use a little bit more heroism in the contemporary novel.  Part of the myth making function of "HITS" in whatever genre is that they create memorable art in the mind of the reader/listener/viewer.  If you create an artistic product that is unmemorable then you have failed, my friend.

    I'm not justifying Ivanhoe as some kind of "ripping yarn," I'm saying that the baroque accumulation of detail around the central plot is highly interesting.  Ivanhoe is not...boring, in the sense that you would expect a 500 page book from the 19th century to be.  It also incorporates the flavor of gothic without really being gothic in the sense of a (relative) absence of the supernatural.  Scott proves himself to be a rationalist in the pages of Ivanhoe, after all, the main heroine is a Jewish woman, a bold move indeed for the UK in the early 19th century.

  The ability to weave styles together is an important element of success in the artistic world of mass culture.  An artist needs to master multiple styles/idioms in order to appeal to a broad swath of the general audience.  An artist also needs to be aware of what styles appeal or WOULD APPEAL to the general audience.  The career of Walter Scott is an interesting place to review this phenomenon, as well as comparing similar concerns in the work of novelists like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

  Oh wait, there is a book on that: Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel: The Gothic, Scott, Dickens (1992) written by the same guy who wrote the introduction to this book!  Coincidence?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great review! The shift in popularity of Scott and Ivanhoe over the years is truly fascinating. Although, as a note, it was Wilfred who saved Rebecca from being burned by the Templars. Richard showed up afterward with the Earl of Essex and was disappointed to have missed the chance to challenge Bois-Guilbert, himself.

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