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Getting to know James Grainger

The eighteenth-century Scottish poet James Grainger has enjoyed a resurgence of scholarly attention during the last two decades. He was a fascinatingly globalized, well-rounded, idiosyncratic author: an Edinburgh-trained physician; regular writer for the Monthly Review; the first English translator of the Roman poet Tibullus; author of both a pioneering neoclassical poem on Caribbean agriculture, The Sugar-Cane (1764), and the first English treatise on West-Indian disease; and the friend and correspondent of a number of well-remembered literati and arbiters of culture in his day, including Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Percy. Although he got his literary start in London, Grainger married into a prominent planter family while on a long trip to the West Indies. He eventually settled in St. Kitts, where he practiced as a physician on sugar plantations, wrote and studied during his free moments, and died before his time (at around age 44, his biographer estimates). This makes Grainger a compellingly transatlantic, well-connected, somewhat mysterious figure. His major works, The Sugar-Cane in particular, addressed the enormous territorial expansion of the British Empire at the end of the Seven Years’ War, and his vexing presentation of West-Indian slavery in The Sugar-Cane first appeared in print about a decade before formal agitations began against the slave trade in England.

In recognition of this topicality, The Sugar-Cane saw its first modern edition in 1999: Thomas Krise’s Caribbeana: An Anthology of English Literature of the West Indies, 1657-1777. The following year, John Gilmore’s indispensable critical edition of The Sugar-Cane laid the groundwork for future generations of scholarship, with its ample editorial notes and an authorial biography that gathers together virtually all of what is now known about Grainger’s life and lifework. Since then, there has been a steady stream of new scholarly articles and book chapters dedicated to Grainger—largely on The Sugar-Cane, his major work—and he is swiftly becoming a fixture in college literature courses on the rise of empire in the eighteenth century and the problem of slavery at the center of British and American national identity.

This meteoric rise into critical consciousness represents a real paradigm shift. For much of the last century, most eighteenth-century specialists treated Grainger as a writer who was not worth knowing. The Sugar-Cane’s highly ornamented style was at odds with sleek, modernist ideals for poetry; its uncomfortable subject matter further compromised its appeal for those audiences. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee included excerpts of The Sugar-Cane in The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse (1930). Critics spoke of Grainger as a rightfully “Neglected Poet” and derided him for “verbal felicity married to mental imbecility” and his insistence on applying Virgilian poetic ornaments to an unruly tropical setting: “[W]hile the Mantuan reaps corn Grainger hoes yams, while the Mantuan treads grapes Grainger must peel bananas,” snarled Ronald Knox in 1958, wondering disparagingly at Grainger’s reliance on “local colour,” and the fact that “the human labour involved [in sugarcane cultivation] is not that of jolly Apulian swains but that of negroes looted from the Gold Coast, whose presence has begun to need some explanation, even to the easy conscience of the eighteenth century” (Knox). In short, scholars in the age of high modernism barely read the poem (in which peeled bananas do not, in fact, appear). Only in the 1970s did a smattering of more earnest (often brief) scholarly comments on Grainger begin to appear in print. As a result, the gradual process of accumulated knowledge and familiarity that characterized the reverential reception of other famous eighteenth-century writers—the tracing of allusions, the description of textual patterns, the hashing out of critical debates—did not really happen in Grainger’s case, despite his continuing, shadowy presence as an exemplar of bad taste.

In other words, there may still be much that we don’t know about Grainger. I was struck by this during the course of my own research on The Sugar-Cane when I traveled to the library of Trinity College Dublin to track down an important “known unknown” in the poem’s textual history: a series of aborted political references, mentioned briefly in the notes to Gilmore’s edition, but whose significance had yet to be analyzed. I had at the time been studying The Sugar-Cane for years, and my week in Dublin did indeed give me a number of leads, particularly as related to Grainger’s appraisal of the posture of the West India Interest during the Seven Years’ War. The experience of handling the physical object of the manuscript also predictably provoked a number of mundane, material questions about Grainger’s life and social networks, from wondering about his personal acquaintance with local planters such as Lord Romney and Samuel Martin (whose portrayal Grainger altered during the course of composition) to probing the manuscript’s provenance. (Was this the manuscript that made its way to England for that legendary reading of a draft of the poem at the house of Joshua Reynolds? It’s unclear.)

In other words, there may still be much that we don’t know about Grainger.

Yet, even as I began to follow up on these sometimes-inconclusive speculations, I was unprepared for a plain revelation that came to me surprisingly late, some months after returning home from Dublin. One day, it finally occurred to me that the “Mr Smith” that I had seen scrawled on the back of a page of The Sugar-Cane’s manuscript was a reference to the “Mr Smith”—Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment moral philosopher and economist. A simple Google search of “Smith” and “sordid master” (a distinctive phrase in the note) had identified The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) as the text in question; a query to my favorite eighteenth-century listserv corroborated the identification. In the nearly page-long comment, which appears near a draft of the versified portrait of “the good Montano,” Grainger challenges Smith’s categorical condemnation of slave owners as “sordid masters,” incapable of full moral feeling. He describes his portraits of Montano and Christopher Columbus as “characters” who will “vindicate” the planter against Smith’s deprecation. As I began to sharpen my transcription and explore the allusion further, I was unprepared for the way this manuscript evidence would gradually alter my own understanding of Grainger’s intellectual ambition, composition process, and coherence as a writer.

The most surprising thing about this finding may have been the way it helped me to recognize Grainger as an intensely bookish creature, bent on grappling with the cutting-edge moral philosophy of his day, even in the harsh environment of the colonial tropics. It was stunning to reflect that, in 1759 or soon thereafter, while Grainger was traveling to or perhaps already living in the West Indies, he went out of his way to obtain Smith’s moral philosophical treatise, then hot off the press. He must also have actively sought out a 1760 philosophical work by George Wallace, A System of the Principles of the Laws of Scotland, for he meditates at length on its radical anti-slavery chapter elsewhere in the manuscript (a comment cited and partially quoted in Gilmore’s edition). Both treatises develop serious philosophical appraisals of the harmfulness of slavery as an institution and its ill effects on masters and slaves alike. This was Grainger’s leisure reading, while newly married into the plantocracy and in the process of establishing his business as a plantation physician? What prior intellectual investments and personal connections led him to seek out this high level of self-critique? Did he and Smith cross paths while Grainger was pursuing his medical degree at the University of Edinburgh? What prior relationship did Grainger have with the great Scottish Enlightenment patron Lord Kames, whom Grainger presented with a copy ofThe Sugar-Cane?

In the last century, readers were often disinclined to think of Grainger as athinker—as a philosophical or systematic writer deliberately engaged with the hard ethical questions of his day. In the “stuffed owl” era, Grainger appeared as an overzealous classicizer, mechanically imitating Virgil in his Carribeanization of the georgic to the detriment of true poetry and good sense. Recent scholarship, in a variation on this view, has often seen in Grainger a clumsy, somewhat passive mouthpiece of planter interests and self-contradictory imperial ideologies that he didn’t fully understand. But Grainger’s manuscript points us toward a different way of knowing Grainger: unearthing the Enlightenment anti-slavery discourse that motivated his study. In the writing of The Sugar-Cane Grainger understood himself to be borrowing and extending Enlightenment methods for discerning cultural patterns and analyzing their relationship to the development of moral sentiment. The cramped, nearly page-long comment on Smith that survives in The Sugar-Cane’s manuscript spells out the logic behind these arguments.

The smallest details of Grainger’s verse portraits in The Sugar-Cane make sense in light of these philosophical concerns; and even Grainger’s patterns of editing in the manuscript can be explained as applications of Enlightenment ideals of “impartiality” in the handling of divisive topics. We have not been inclined to see The Sugar-Cane as a vehicle for philosophical discussion and debate in this way, but this is where the most recent evidentiary revelations lead us.

Featured image credit: The New and Universal System of Geography by G H Millar. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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