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

‘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.

Burgeon! Proliferate! Share!