James Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” & Word Frequencies

James Hogg manipulated not only the placement of words—but also word frequencies—throughout the original 1824 edition of his book, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

As the Afterword of this edition explains, Hogg also ingeniously used word frequencies to conceal meaning throughout the book. This brief video highlights some of the peculiar word frequencies in Hogg’s “Justified Sinner.”

And the ways that Hogg used word frequencies is ingenious: it ultimately conceals a notion about likeness and identity, and good and evil.

“Like is an ill mark”

Not to give it all away—and ruin the experience and interpretation for yourself—but it’s worth noting that Ancient greek philosophers were preoccupied with ideas about (numerical) identity. For example, how is it that 12 can be “equal” to three sets of four (3×4). And how could they be “equal” or the same, when in fact they are not. How can “twelve” be “equal” to 6+6, or 13-1, or 9+2—when they are in fact different sets of numbers?

And while matters of identity and likeness—such as the witting quote “Like is an ill mark” on page 102—are part of the narrative, yet matters of identity and likeness are also part of the composition of the original book as well.

Indeed, it seems Hogg used this notion as a principle in formulating word frequencies throughout the book. For example, their are plenty of bedeviling pairs of words of equal frequency.

Peculiar pairs of words with equal frequency…

Hogg’s use of verbs with equal frequency in the past and present tense

Here are just a handful of peculiar pairs of verbs with equal frequency in their respective past and present tenses:

used 484 times each

14 times each

9 times each

9 times each

5 times each

And there are other peculiar pairs of words and word frequencies throughout the book, as explained in the Afterword of this edition—the only edition that reproduces every word, on every line, and practically the same place as the 1824 original book.

There’s also a list of word frequency pairs that highlight other “sets” of peculiar word frequency schemes.

In sum, while there’s much to be deciphered, overall it seems Hogg’s manipulation of word frequencies adds a bedeviling dimension of significance regarding likeness and identity—to an already extraordinary novel.

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200 Years of Trickery: How James Hogg’s “Justified Sinner” Has Bedeviled Literary Scholars

James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

‘The devil ay drives his hogs to an ill market”
—Scottish proverb*

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, was first published “anonymously” in 1824, and soon attributed to Scottish author James Hogg.[1] Although it seems like the original does not bear the identity of “the author,” it actually does, but that’s a whole other story…

In discussing ‘this most multifarious of novels’, Penny Fielding explains how ‘one does not have to read far in the novel to realise that the conventional terms of literary analysis (…) are not going to be helpful in any straightforward sense.’[2] Likewise, toward formulating conclusive interpretations, Susan Manning concludes, ‘every exegetical attempt leads straight into a cul-de-sac’.[3]

Charles Bruder and other scholars have argued that it is perhaps best to characterize the novel by its lack of coherence.[4] While Meiko O’Halloran and others consider that like other works in Hogg’s oeuvre, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is an episodic, intertextual pastiche guided by a “kaleidoscopic” principle offering “readers with a wide range of interpretive choices.”[5]

And Marina MacKay highlights how “ambiguity is at the heart of Justified Sinner” considering not just the psychological turns the characters take, the irreconcilability of conflicting perceptions, and that “the editor’s perceptions may be no more reliable than those of the justified sinner himself.”[6]

However, such determinations are based predominantly upon thematic, narrative, and contextual considerations—and not intrinsic formal characteristics of the book itself. These interpretations have more to do with constituting thematic associations, constructing misinformed character identities, and formulating contextualizations than identifying and understanding formal aspects of the book itself.

Yet carefully reading the original book—in its original form—clearly and precisely reveals the identity of the Editor, the “unknown” author, and other “narrator/characters” in the book, and provides a dimension of significance and meaning missing from every subsequent scholarly edition.

The curse of “contextualizing” instead of analyzing…

Most contemporary literary critics and scholars are far too preoccupied with finding and formulating external, contextual significance and meaning, when they should be taking more time to understand intrinsic characteristics inherit in books themselves. In other words, they’re far too busy looking outside, instead of inside the book itself.

This should seem deeply troubling, especially since critics and scholars have yet to produce a single formal analysis of the original 1824 edition (until now). And while The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner may very well involve the confounding of precise judgment within a seemingly incoherent “text” of conflicting “narratives” arranged in a kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of generic elements told by unreliable narrators in a fog of socio-psychological ambiguity—formal analysis of the original book tells a much different story.

The 1824 Original—An Astoundingly Precise Work of Art

Formal analysis evidences that the original 1824 edition is an astoundingly precise literary work of art. It is an illusory book involving deft manipulations of formal elements, including the particular placement of a particular word, on a particular page, on a particular line, even in particular positions. Significant formal aspects of the book include textual/numerical correlations, including not only words and numbers within the text, but page and line numbers as well; much like the textual/numerical correlations in the King James Version of the Bible.

Formal manipulations within the original edition also involve peculiar word frequencies and word positioning, such as the curious placement of the word seventeen, which occurs only once in the entire book precisely on page 17, within the phrase “nearly seventeen,” coincidentally at the end of line 16 (hence, nearly on line 17).[7]

Scholars Have Obscured Significance & Meaning

Paradoxically, these elements—which constitute the illusory form and character of the original book—have been overlooked and consequently obscured in every subsequent scholarly edition.[8] And in this regard, the “curse” pronounced by character Robert Wringhim upon those “who trieth to alter or amend” his memoir seems as factive as it is fictive.[9]

And by altering the form and content of the original book—and accepting some other version as a substitute for the original—literary critics and scholars have become part of Hogg’s trickery and part of a literary joke (and extraordinary, literary meta-hoax) that has lasted the better of two centuries.

By altering formal aspects of the original 1824 edition, subsequent editions have obscured and disconnected formal elements from their significance and layers of interpretive possibilities and meaning. In other words, you’ll never be able to fully reckon or interpret The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner unless you read the original (or an exact reproduction of it).

The problem stems from the status quo of literary theory and scholarship. For the past 50 years or so, critics and scholars have been more concerned with “texts” and far less concerned with books as works of literary art with significance to be found in their form.

While hardly anyone would substitute an altered copy of the Mona Lisa and and hold it with the same regard as the original painting, literary critics and scholars (along with readers) oddly seem to have no problem substituting versions of a “text”—as though nothing of artistic value or significance exists in the original form of a book. That’s a problem, and one that leads to misreadings and misinterpretations aplenty.

Moreover, the formal oversights in more recent editions of the The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner are a byproduct of the general aversion to authorial intent and concomitantly formal aspects of a book, including elements of design, composition, and typesetting, which has arguably haunt contemporary literary theory, scholarship, and criticism—and will continue to do so, until critics and scholars “shift their paradigm” or adopt a new “theoretical lens”—or just pay attention and carefully read books in their original form.

Until then, critics and scholars will remain confounded by their own devices and unwitting victims of the cultural practices of the literary “black arts” Hogg not-so-ironically tells of in the book [10].

In the mean time—which will likely be a long while, considering the reluctance of egos, the lethargy of academia, and the near reverse machinations of institutionalized education—Hogg shall continue to have his rightfully deserved last laugh…


Works Cited

* “Allan Ramsay’s Scot’s Proverbs,” Part III of the The Edinburgh Budget of Wit and Amusement, 1808.

[1] The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Edinburgh: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Greene, 1824).
[2]Penny Fielding, ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Approaches’, in The Edinburgh Companion to James Hogg, ed. by Ian Duncan and Douglas Mack (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2012), 132.
[3]Fielding 132; also Susan Manning, The Puritan-Provincial Vision: Scottish and American Literature in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) 83.
[4]Charles Bruder, “Structuralism, Form, and the Individual Text: An Initial Reading of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner” (Ph.D. diss., University of Nebraska, 1976), 65.
[5]Mieko O’Halloran, James Hogg and British Romanticism: A Kaleidoscopic Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 2. See also, Silvia Mergenthal. “James Hogg and British Romanticism. A Kaleidoscopic Art by Meiko O’Halloran” Scottish Literary Review 8, no. 2 (2016): 170-172.
[6] Marina MacKay, The Cambridge Introduction to the Novel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) :62-3.
[7] The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner p. 17.
[8] These include: Gide 1947; Carey 1969; Hunter 2001; Rankin 2008; and Duncan 2010.
[9] The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, p. 368.
[10] The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, p. 340.

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How One Word In Hogg’s “Confessions” Unravels Nearly 200 Years of Literary Criticism

"Seventeen" on page 17

The word seventeen is one of the most peculiar words in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

For one thing, seventeen is a hapax legomenon—a Greek term for “a word that occurs only once” within a book, letter, or some other written context.

While there are plenty of words that occur only once in James Hogg’s “Confessions,” some 509 hapax legomena, the precise use of the word seventeen is what makes it quite peculiar and significant…

“Seventeen” on page 17. Coincidence?

As explained in the Afterword of this edition, the word seventeen occurs only once throughout the entire book—precisely on page 17.

For those of a more skeptical persuasion, it’s worth noting that the word seventeen occurs within the phrase “nearly seventeen hours.” This may not seem like a big deal, however, the phrase “nearly seventeen” occurs precisely at the very end of line 16.

Hence, the phrase “nearly seventeen” occurs nearly on line 17, on page 17. And as explained in the Afterword, the hapax legomenon seventeen is part of a devilishly elaborate scheme.

And it’s also important since it bears significance not only upon the vocabulary of the book—but the form of the book as well.

Unraveling 192 years of literary criticism—with one word…

In this regard, it’s just one of many examples supporting the argument that James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner isn’t just a “text,” or a “narrative” or a set of conflicting “narratives” told by “unreliable narrators” in a fog of socio-psychological ambiguity—it’s an astoundingly precise, deftly composed literary work of art in the form of an illusory book.

The singularly precise use of a hapax legomenon on a particular page, in particular position, on a particular line, evidences that Hogg’s “Confessions” is not merely “a text” that can be extrapolated from its form.

Rather, as I’ve been arguing for quite some time, by its very design—the clear and deliberate intent of its author—James Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” is an illusory book: a literary work of art, with significance and meaning that cannot be extrapolated from its form.

We all know what can happen to intent, meaning, and interpretation when words are taken out of context. Likewise, taking words—out of their form—can obscure if not obliterate their significance and meaning. And by taking words out of their precise form and context, and not preserving the words and pagination of the original 1824 edition, every subsequent scholarly edition of Hogg’s “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” paradoxically distorts the meaning and significance of the words and the book itself.

Not one scholarly edition (nor the more than 120 editions currently available) preserves the original text, layout, and pagination of the 1824 edition.

And not one literary scholar or critic in the past 192 years has mentioned the significance of the word seventeen on page 17, or any of the other “secrets of the curse” hidden in the form of the book—until now.

So whether it seems polemical or provocative, here’s my argument: most of the literary criticism concerning Hogg’s “Confessions” within the past 192 years can be undone with a hapax legomenon—literally, one word—the occurence of the word seventeen on page 17.


MLA Citation for this article:

Chaix, Jaix. “How One Word In Hogg’s “Confessions” Unravels Nearly 200 Years of Literary Criticism.” HoggConfessions.com. Word Exo Inc., 5 Dec. 2016. Web.

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James Hogg’s “Confessions”: A Related-Reading Tool Kit

Related Reading

As with reading most novels, there are no prerequisites for reading James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner, or this edition, which features “An Afterword; Revealing Secrets of the Curse.”

However, if you want to enhance your interpretation and your appreciation of Hogg’s masterpiece, consider these related works…

“A Scots Mummy”

“A Scots Mummy. In a Letter from James Hogg” was published in the August 1823 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazinea year before The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

In “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” the “Editor” refers to James Hogg and the “Scots Mummy” letter on page 376 in this edition (as in the original). And in this regard, the letter is as factive as it is fictive—and blurs the line between.

Hogg addressed the letter to Sir Christopher North, which may give you some perspective and direction about the nature of the letter and the point of it all.

Indeed, you will miss out on some splendid significance if you overlook the “Scots Mummy.” And as with references in general, it is perhaps best to refer to the letter when you encounter it on page 376 while reading “Confessions of a Justified Sinner.”

“A Scots Mummy. In a Letter from James Hogg” excerpted from the August 1823 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. [PDF 1MB]

The complete 1823 edition of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. [Google Books PDF]

“…like reading the bible and the jest-book, verse about”

As one might expect from a novel about the memoir of a religious fanatic, the “justified sinner” himself, there are numerous burlesques, entanglements, parodies, quotes, subversions, and other manipulations of bible verses throughout The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

For example, on pages 6-7, “the Editor” tells of character George Colwan’s remark about what living a life of constant religious devotion would be like: “…It would be like reading the Bible and the jest-book, verse about” (p. 6-7).

“The bible…”

Colwan’s anecdotal literary comparison may seem as humorous as it may be blasphemous.  As pointed out in the Afterword in this edition, Hogg’s quotes and parodies of bible verses are perhaps better appreciated with at least some knowledge of their source.

In keeping with the historical trajectory and context of Hogg’s “Confessions,” it is perhaps best to reference the King James Bible, also known as The Authorized King James Version, an English translation of the bible commissioned in 1604 by King James (who ruled as the King of Scotland as James VI, and at the same time, the King of England and Ireland as James I).

I’ve referred to a copy of the 1611 edition of The Authorized King James Bible,  as well as The King James Version of the Bible available at Project Gutenberg, and other “random” versions of the 1769 Oxford Edition, without adverse discrepancies in overall text or meaning (putting more nuanced discussions of bible editions, variations, and scholarship aside).  So, just about any version of the King James will serve you well for reference purposes.

“…the “jest-book”

Yet to fully consider character George Colwan’s remark, if we consult the bible, then of course we must consult the “jest-book”—if not several…

Indeed, familiarity with Scottish proverbs and anecdotes can enlighten and enliven your reading experience and appreciation for Hogg’s “Confessions.”

For example, character Bessy Gilies recalls a rather key anecdote: “Like is an ill mark” (p. 102). The significance and devilish variations of the anecdote are discussed in the Afterword (p. v).

And while there are many jest-books, and collections of jokes and humorous anecdotes of the late 1790s through the 1830s that can prime your imagination for the humor of Hogg’s era, one is particularly notable for its popularity during its time, and availability during ours:

The Edinburgh Budget of Wit and Amusement: Being A Select Collection if Anecdotes, Bon Mots, &c.. of Celebrated Characters, &c. Including Many Originals. Containing Also Allan Ramsay’s Scots Proverbs, published in 1808.

The reference to the anecdote “Like is an ill mark” that character Bessy Giles mentions on page 102 in “Confessions,” can be found on page 396 in “Allan Ramsay’s Scot’s Proverbs” which is Part III of the The Edinburgh Budget of Wit and Amusement.

Seeking out other jest-books, particularly those of the age in which character George Colwan is situated, also offer some rather enlightening perspectives.

The Translation from an Ancient Chaldee Manuscript

The October 1817 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine features an article by James Hogg and others that in many ways can be seen as an important precursor to The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner. At the least, “The Chaldee Manuscript” exemplifies a combination of “the bible and the jest-book” in parodic form. For example, it parodies the justified column-format of the King James Bible and its side-note commentaries, which Hogg, and his fellow writers John G. Lockhart and John Wilson, used mostly for mockery and satire.

A good quality copy of “The Chaldee Manuscript” in its original form is available from the DiscoverArchive at Vanderbilt University.

Forming your own literary interpretation…

Instructing others about how to read, interpret, or approach Hogg’s “Confessions of A Justified Sinner” would be most antithetical to the premise and very purpose of the book itself. So I shall try to avoid doing just that.

That said, the modern reader may miss some of the subtlety and significance of the novel without considering these key, related works—which can enhance your enjoyment of reading and appreciating this literary work of art.

So read them for yourself—and form your own interpretation.
Works Cited

The Authorized King James Bible, 1611.

The Edinburgh Budget of Wit and Amusement: Being A Select Collection of Anecdotes, Bon Mots, &c.. of Celebrated Characters, &c. Including Many Originals. Containing Also Allan Ramsay’s Scots Proverbs, 1808.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner: With an Afterword; Revealing Secrets of The Curse, edited by Jaix Chaix, Word Exo Inc., 2016.

Hogg, James. “A Scots Mummy.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 14, no. 79, 1823, pp. 188-190.

MLA Citation for this article:

Chaix, Jaix. “James Hogg’s “Confessions”: A Related-Reading Tool Kit.” HoggConfessions.com. Word Exo Inc., 4 Dec. 2016. Web.

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