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October 30, 2015


What is to say that many of the Southerners did not mis-read Scott in exactly the same way that Twain, Wachtell, et al. appear to have? At which point, their analysis might be rather closer than an accurate reading would suggest.

Oh, I think they did! I think they clearly mis-read "Ivanhoe" to be an inspiring tale of chivalry. But is it fair to blame Scott for their mis-reading, to say that they "took" their attitudes from Scott, that he "caused" their beliefs?

I think the Doc is saying that the reviewers and readers/fans are/were in step in their wrongness about the content. I don't think what's at issue is the descriptions of the influence.

If anything, that's kind of the point. The book was influential in the way that it was because everyone (i.e. fans, critics, reviewers, and scholars) seemed to misread it.

I don't know if that's right or wrong, since I haven't read Ivanhoe, but that's what I got out of the post. And the excerpts seem to support it.

Of course, I could have just waited for the Doc to reply.

Apologies for missing the point.

It is probably the cognitive dissonance. If you are reading a romance set in the middle ages, you are willing to close your eyes from the barbarous action of the tournament and actually consider even the casualties to be part of the romance of the sport. After all, until recently, a large part of the allure of motorsports came from the regular on-track casualties.

So, it is possible to read Scott as completely straight story without any sarcasm. However, it tells more about the reader than the novel.

It's worth remembering that the first battle of the American Civil War had picnickers who came to watch it. The mass of readers were definitely reading what they wanted to.

Also, when pointing to pretty much any sardonic written statement ever as being sufficiently obvious in its sarcasm, one should recall that there were educated individuals who took A Modest Proposal at face value.

worth reading: Walter Scott wrote a long entry on chivalry for the Encylopedia Brittanica that goes into his doubts as to the morality of chivalry and history, particularly insofar as chivalry was entangled with the idea of 'holy war.'

"How could so many readers mis-read so consistently? "

All I can say from my years teaching in an English department is that the how and why are unclear, but that they do it (with just about every text) is abundantly clear every time you ask a reader to explain the text.

Umberto Eco claimed that novels are machines for generating interpretation. It seems however that the machine is designed with very loose tolerances and highly variable output.


Exploring that "how and why" seems to me fascinating and important. In the case of Ivanhoe, the mis-readings have been quite consistent over a long period, and also enormously influential.

Does this mean Scott is a great writer, or an incompetent one? Does Scott deserve to get the blame (or credit) for what readers took from his work, even if it’s something he didn’t put in there?

To some extent, the consistency of mis-reading Ivanhoe may just be someone (or a few someones) doing so early on. Followed by people who were aware of that interpretation, read it looking for that . . . and finding what they went looking for.

Dante was subject to a similar misinterpretation. For quite some time, the only part of Inferno that was translated into English was the scene of Ugolino in Canto 33. There were more than 70 pre-20th c. translation of just that episode. The episode appealed to the Romantics for the gloom and horror of scenes like this, and for the romantic and sexual aspects of other scenes, but they paid rather less attention to the poem as a whole.

Byron did a rendition of the similarly popular scene with Francesca from Canto 5, but confessed that trying to read the entire work put him to sleep. The romantic aspects appealed to Byron and his contemporaries, but not the political or moral parts.

(Byron's rendition: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/jan/30/poem-of-the-week-lord-byron)

After Franz Liszt had an argument with Comtesse Marie d'Agoult, in which she accused him of not living up to the romantic ideal depicted in the Francesca passage, he read the entire poem and decided that he disagreed with her interpretation, though the extract about Francesca would continue to be a theme in his letters. This prompted him to begin composing what would eventually be his Dante Symphony, which eventually lead to Liszt's relationship with Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein.

The romantic interpretation of Dante was an influence on John Ruskin (and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood). Ruskin was one of the proponents of medievalism around the time Ivanhoe was published, and apparently credited Ivanhoe with popularizing the medieval revival.

Ivanhoe was at least influential enough to inspire the Eglinton Tournament of 1839 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eglinton_Tournament_of_1839).

I can't say that's the primary reason the novel was mis-interpreted that way, but Romanticism and the medieval revivalism of the time would be the first place I'd look for clues.

Once cannot even blame Hollywood since that was still in the far future.

A case where imo Hollywood is mostly to blame about the general misconception is Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (outside France known as the Hunchback (or The Ringer) of Notre Dame). Most people think of it as a cliche ridden cloak and dagger dime novel that happens to be written by a serious author (if they know that there was a book before the movies at all) completely unaware that the book is completely self-aware of the cliched tropes and permanently commenting on them.
Scott does so too, although not that openly as Hugo.

That should be either 'For once, one...' or just 'One...'

It's probably also fair to ask how many modern readers of Ivanhoe have actually read the book, and how many seen the movie...

And note the second to last paragraph of the featured review.

You think mis-reading Ivanhoe is bad, just look at what happens with The Wealth of Nations.

Snake's thought complements mine: I was thinking about how little the portions of the US which make loudest protestations of Christian faith pay attention to a lot of what's in the Bible, and claim as biblical many things that aren't. It's no secret that one of the big streams in American life is people who feel oppressed when they can't dictate how everyone else lives. Maybe that's the stream, or one that constantly crosses over with, the one of people who can't read anything very well.

The misreadings of Ivanhoe are, I believe, a product of the time in which he was writing. It's the period of Folk Nationalism responding to the writing of Johann Gottfried Herder. The idea of Volk went deep during the time and Scott's Romantic Nationalism hit it's height of power and influence just in time to be caught up, in the US South with the notion of a Scotch Irish identity that was co-opted into the identity of the Klu Klux Klan. Scott is not the source of the misreadings, he's just one of the narratives being swept along in the stream of strange national essentialism that was so prevalent in that time period.

Interesting! I usually feel the same cognitive dissonance whenever I read Jane Austen. Most people seem to have read a completely different author who happened to write books with the same titles. I should add Ivanhoe to my TBR pile (does it count as part of Mount File770 if the essay is off-site?)

Nous, that makes sense. Folks wanting to read that way picked up on Scott, then, and might well have picked up on someone else if they felt he'd do the job better? I'm a big believer in the extent to which people pick up on stuff because they can pull out the stories they want from it.

Speaking of simple misreadings, how many people realize that The Ugly American is actually the hero of that eponymous novel? He's physically ugly, but in fact does what the authors take to be the right thing, i.e., learns the language, looks at what the natives actually need, etc. The novel also depicts other Americans who behave in an ugly manner - ignorant, condescending, arrogant - and the general understanding of the title, almost from its outset, gravitated toward that kind of "ugliness" rather than the authors' intent.

The question of whether "good" American intervention, such as that implicitly offered by the hero and praised by the authors, was actually good for the countries in which we intervened, is a matter that had best be left for another thread. My recollection is that the Kennedy brothers and others of "The Best and the Brightest" were influenced by The Ugly American, which helped shape the kind of positive, supposedly benevolent, sensitive, knowledgable intervention that characterized our policy in Vietnam in the early 1960s . . .

What could possibly go wrong?

The thing I find particularly silly about the Twain/Wachtell argument is the idea that one Scottish writer had that much of an impact at a time when the vast majority of people who made up the south had already emigrated from England and been developing their way of life for some time. In _Albion's Seed_, David Hackett Fischer argues that the biggest reason for the character of the south is the interaction of the Cavalier culture (immigrants from the late 1600s to early 1700s) and the ruffian/redneck culture (former borderland reavers by way of northern Ireland). The thing is, all those people had already been here for a while, building up their-honor and violence-loving cultures long before Walter Scott was writing. The notion that that culture just developed between 1820 and say 1860, just in time to have the Civil War -- yeah, right.

It's worth remembering that the first battle of the American Civil War had picnickers who came to watch it.

But picnickers also went out to watch the southward march of the Jacobite army in 1745, 25 years before Scott was born. Belief in the heroic fantasy of warfare was clearly deeply instilled in the early modern mind and nothing that Scott or Southey could do would shift it. That took the industrialisation of war, and even then only after the event.

Oh, I entirely agree - this was more to point out that there was certainly fertile ground for readings that e.g. ignored the brutality depicted in the tourney melee.

Even now I don't think Americans have entirely shaken the heroic fantasy, certainly not to the degree to which nations who experienced modern warfare on their soil tend to do so. E.g., in discussions of the European refugee crisis, a very common criticism that I see is lambasting the demographics of the refugees for including grown, non-elderly men - because if there's a war in your homeland, it's dishonorable/cowardly/etc. to flee with your family rather than staying and fighting one, both, or all sides of the belligerents. "War is sweet to them that know it not."

Could it be that many readers simply couldn't absorb the notion that a young Jewish woman was the heroine of a novel about medieval knights and chivalry and whatnot?

Would be interesting to compare how much 'screen time' each character in the book has. I'd guess Wamba, Cedric's court jester would be in the top 5 competing with his friend the swineherd.

Byomtov: If Scott had called the novel "Rebecca" (or even something like "Rebecca or Rowena?") it would have helped. But most readers - probably including myself, if I stopped to think about it - tend to assume that the title character of a book is the hero, or anti-hero, or at least major protagonist.

At least he is not Godot. ;-)

The OP convinced me - but then I read "Heart of darkness" as a borderline anarchist satire of racism and English culture. I didn't think any racists actually saw the book as supporting them until it occurred to me to look in a place that shall not be named.

"The thing is, all those people had already been here for a while, building up their-honor and violence-loving cultures long before Walter Scott was writing. The notion that that culture just developed between 1820 and say 1860, just in time to have the Civil War -- yeah, right. "

Well, it's not implausible. The Japanese code of Bushido was essentially invented from whole cloth in the generation before WWII.

as an antidote for sir Walter scott, I suggest cervantes

My question is how many people read Scott's original novel and how many people read bastardized abridgements. Drastic abridgements were pretty common for those enormous 19th Century potboilers. They were more or less the equivalent of today's movie version: a popularized form that kept the action and left everything else out. I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that most people who read "Ivanhoe" were actually reading an abridgment that changed the character of the original quite drastically.

FWIW, the novel version of The Princess Bride is something of a parody of the genre. It uses the abridgement of a long, almost unreadable historical novel as a framing device for the story, with the author making snarky comments about the stuff he was removing.

Your reading of Ivanhoe is consistent with how I remember being affected by it when I was 12, many years ago -- Rebecca was clearly the most striking and memorable character. And interestingly, this is clear even in relatively simple-minded word counts:

Rebecca 298
John 199
Isaac 179
Ivanhoe 172
Rowena 165
RIchard 136
Brian 90
Locksley 68

One of the reasons Rebecca is such a great character is that she was based on a real person, Rebecca Gratz. Gratz was Jewish, lived in Philadelphia and was known for her philanthropy, intelligence, grace and the like. Scott was impressed and created a character he felt worthy of her.

Sir Walter Scott and other novelists of his era did have an impact on pre-Civil War southern culture. There were all sorts of re-enactment societies in which men and women had mock jousts and played characters from Ivanhoe and other works. They had a rich fantasy life.

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