April 2022 - The Poetry of Wonder and the Prose of History

Thursday 28 April, 1.00 - 2.00pm. content

Thursday 28 April, 1.00 - 2.00pm.

Reading James Macpherson’s history writing of the 1760s and 1770s with Adam Smith, Hegel and Ranajit Guha.

The work of James Macpherson has largely been seen by scholars through the lens of Ossian, the poetic sensation of the 1760s that sparked global admiration and controversy in equal measure. However, the philosophical and historiographical context in which Macpherson was writing has received limited attention.

This paper examines the paratextual material to Fingal (1761/62) and Temora (1763) and explores how Macpherson sought to reconcile the poetic universe of Gaelic oral tradition with emerging conventions of Enlightenment prose history writing. It argues that the work of Adam Smith is crucial to understanding this context, especially Smith’s discussion of ‘the poetry of wonder’ and the prose of history in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (delivered in Glasgow at the same time Macpherson was writing Temora). Moreover, the imperial context in which Macpherson was writing during the 1760s and 1770s becomes apparent if we read the Ossianic Collections alongside Ranajit Guha’s postcolonial critique of Hegel’s history writing. Hegel’s account of how the prose of history superseded the ‘poetry of wonder’ found in oral tradition is similar to both Smith’s and Macpherson’s understanding of this process, but half a century or so later. By this time, history writing had firmly become established as a colonial way of knowing and ordering the world.

This paper argues that Macpherson was engaged in a related process at a much earlier stage, in the second half of the eighteenth century, using prose history writing to make sense of the place of the Gàidhealtachd in the British imperial state.

Speaker bio

Dr Jim MacPherson is a Senior Lecturer in History at the Centre for History, UHI. His work focuses on the impact of empire on the Highlands, from the eighteenth century to the present day. He is currently completing (with Mairi MacPherson) a book on James ‘Ossian’ Macpherson which argues that he wrote about the past as an Enlightenment historian during the 1760s and 1770s, using history writing to defend the interests of the British imperial state.

Dr Jim MacPherson