The higher they climb the harder they fall…
It’s 103 years this month since the death of S.R.Crockett. Most people today are barely aware of his existence yet in 1894 up till his death in 1914 he was one of the leading lights in literature. (nice alliteration there don’t you think?)
After a decade slogging away (often under the title ‘Anon’) in journals and magazines, he ‘burst’ onto the scene with a collection of short stories/sketches titled ‘The Stickit Minister and other common men’ (Yes, I hear you say ‘not exactly a snappy title’). Even in its day the title caused some consternation as folk went into libraries asking for ‘Crockett by the Stickit Minister’ and any number of variations you can imagine.
The following year, 1894 saw Crockett hit the high spots – he had no fewer than four books published in one year and became firmly entrenched upon the bestsellers list for the next decade. He was one of the foremost in the late Victorian cult of celebrity. He had over 70 full length works published in his lifetime and scores more articles, short stories and sketches syndicated in publications worldwide.
So what went wrong? What did he do wrong? He was successful. He was popular. He died at the wrong time. He didn’t take control of his own publications. He didn’t play ‘editor’ or publisher but was a very successful career writer.
Add to that the fact that his reputation was trashed after his death and you’ll see why you’re not still reading him today whereas you might well read Dickens and Hardy and find fellow feeling in both their works.
Here’s a few more reasons why you don’t find Crockett on the bookshelves these days:
Fashion: The times they were a changing. Crockett died just before the outbreak of the First World War. And that war changed everything, including fiction. The modernist movement that came out of the war couldn’t abide looking back and began to see novels from the late 19th century as outmoded. To be fair the ‘Kailyard rural idyll’ slur had been placed on Crockett as early as 1894 – before he had written the bulk of his work and it has stuck around. Give a dog a bad name. I have to say that however much they vaunt Grassic Gibbon and Neill Gunn – they are not miles away from Crockett. It all, I suppose, depends on what you are looking for, and what you relate to, in your fiction. If you want rural realism and romance then Crockett is every bit as good as either of the aforementioned Scots and of course the previously mentioned Dickens and Hardy.
It’s true that even in his own day Crockett was subject to some criticism (though equally to some overblown praise) But this simply reflects the fact that it was a time when literary agents were getting into their stride and publishers really knew how to market hard. With the emergence of the mass market there were fortunes to be made and with it a fair amount of dirty play. Publishing was undergoing a revolution and it was not bloodless.
Beyond this, he was of the wrong class. Crockett wasn’t a ‘gentleman’ writer. He was the illegitimate son of a dairy maid from rural Galloway. He was a ‘lad o’pairts’ who made it to Edinburgh University. He did a decade in the ministry and was never allowed to forget it, however insightful and cutting his criticism of traditional mainstream religion was. While he became famous, he wasn’t of the right socio-economic grouping and his writing was populist both in its content and its reach. He favoured the ‘ordinary’ rural folk and was as far away from the aspirational Downton Abbey Brigade as it’s possible to be. But he wasn’t an ‘out and out’ Grub Street realist either. Oh, and he was Scottish – not North British.
And most importantly perhaps, His reputation was trashed. That in itself should be enough to make one sit up and appreciate that he was worth reading. Those who came immediately after did what they could to dim his light – and the combination of his death and the First World War certainly helped them. I shall name names here and blame the likes of Hugh Macdiarmid (a man who was so unsuccessful writing under his own name of Christopher Grieve that he changed it) A man who condemned prose fiction in favour of poetry but wasn’t averse to casting his judgement (and vitriolic it was at times) on fiction. A man who never let his ignorance get in the way of a good critical gubbing. A man who couldn’t decide if he was a communist or a nationalist and who got thrown out of both parties. A man who decided to invent a new Scots ‘leid’ because he couldn’t get arrested writing in the sort of Scots that was mother’s milk to the likes of Crockett. Am I being unjust to the man? I don’t feel compelled to be ‘more than fair’ to MacDiarmid when he was so instrumental in trashing Crockett’s reputation without good cause. As far as I can see, a touch of the green eyed monsters was the most obvious feature of his criticisms. And Crockett wasn’t alive to fight back. You can tell I feel a bit strongly about this. I don’t apologise for that. You can and will of course, make up your own minds. I don’t want my thrashing of Macdiarmid to prejudice you either for or against Crockett. We all have our own prejudicial demons to fight.
But most importantly it raises the question: how does one restore a reputation so comprehensively (and unfairly) trashed over a period of 100 years?
Well, three years ago Cally Phillips began a one-woman crusade to right the wrongs done to Crockett. She set up The Galloway Raiders (an online Crockett site/literary society) and a publishing company. Through Ayton Publishing she has now brought more than 40 of Crockett’s near 80 full length published works back into print and besides that has published another half dozen books about him, including the only extant literary biography. There is no historic biography of him. Wikipedia and Google are pretty useless as they perpetuate myths and errors which have become clichés.
We do well to remember that History is told by the victors and media is controlled by the moguls. The so called ‘independent’ social media is governed by the techno savvy and depth is certainly a casualty of the breadth of online media ‘platforms’ for whom data harvesting is more important than factual accuracy.
It is in the niche world that one can find accuracy but one has to look for it. Restoring a reputation is a very difficult thing but I believe it is the responsibility of all of us to take heart and direction from pioneers and advocates like Cally Phillips and commit to the following as regards authors and their works with which you are unfamiliar: Read without Prejudice. Open your Mind. Start with primary sources. Always ask questions. Consider appropriate contexts.
There are plenty of authors out there whose work has fallen off the radar. It’s not a reflection of the quality of their work it’s just the way the world turns. And often the world turns in ugly ways when money is a significant factor and creativity is turned into an industry.
Recently I saw something on Facebook which made me laugh. The context is almost irrelevant but a chap there gave the reason for why something was wrong (mobile phone coverage if you’re really interested) as being ‘because capitalism’. That just about sums it up for me. Why did Crockett fall out of favour? The answer is simply ‘because capitalism.’ Because capitalism and because the likes of MacDiarmid were too small as men to acknowledge that other views of the world than their own were possible. Which is, dare I say it, in itself a mark of ‘because capitalism.’
MacDiarmid was mercurial and the one thing Crockett was at least was consistent and honest with his views be they religious or political. In my opinion Crockett was a better socialist than MacDiarmid. You can’t compare them as writers and you shouldn’t try. As men… least said the better on that score. The ultimate irony is that if MacDiarmid had been a bit more open and reasonable he might have realised that Crockett was a writer who represented and produced many of the things he called for in fiction. Was he too close to see this? Or just too jealous? Or just too keen to make a name for himself? I couldn’t possibly judge on that score.
Whether you are a fan of modernism or not, whether you think I’m being unfair to MacDiarmid or not, I ask that should you think about ‘discovering’ Crockett you do so on terms which undertake the read without prejudice principle and judge the books not by the reputation (good or otherwise) of the author, but simply on the content. His work may or may not ‘speak’ to you and it may or may not be ‘your kind’ of fiction. There’s a fair breadth to choose from over a thirty year period – he was innovative, experimental and prolific. Perhaps you will have to reach out to understand the Scots humour or the episodic style. It certainly won’t be ‘what you are used to’ if you read modern fiction. You will be much more comfortable with it if you’re familiar with other 19th century novels and like I said, if you like Dickens and Hardy, or Scott and Stevenson, or Buchan and Grassic Gibbon and Gunn for that matter, you may well find plenty to love in Crockett’s work.
But whatever else you do in approaching Crockett for the first time do this; reach out, learn, open your mind – instead of showing the ignorance that goes with a simple acceptance that a man’s reputation has been trashed by those who sought to gain advantage from their actions.
On a more practical level I’d recommend you embark upon your own journey of discovery of Samuel Rutherford Crockett by visiting The Galloway Raiders site. There are worse virtual places to spend some time. If you fancy a bit of history, adventure and romance you may well find that Crockett’s your go-to man even 103 years after his death.
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