Central Park, among other points of interest in its 843 acres, contains “Literary Walk,” s series of statues dedicated to writers. In prior posts, I discussed those dedicated to Robert Burns and William Shakespeare.
There was a time, a century and a half ago, when the fame of Sir Walter Scott here in the United States was nearly a match for either of them. Even though he remains a figure of note and pride in his native Scotland, where his romantic vision of the land sparked an interest in tourism that continues to this day, his novels and poems haven’t worn as well here. Those aware of his work here in the U.S. are likely to know it secondhand, through the TCM staple Ivanhoe (the 1951 film starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor) and the 1995 flick Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange (neither, of course, a Scot).
Blame some of the decline in Scott’s reputation on Mark Twain. In Life on the Mississippi, the American saw Scott as having “so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the [Civil War], that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain takes a gleeful revenge by having his two runaways from the South, Huck and the slave Jim, board the sunken steamship the Walter Scott, which had “killed herself on a rock.”
(Incidentally, for all his annoyance with Scott, Twain found his influence inescapable.He felt compelled to use historical fiction, a genre that the Scot had advanced more than any other writer, in writing about a French adolescent girl of the late Middle Ages. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc turned out to be Twain’s favorite among his own writings.)
Twain’s biting comments came before the commissioning and creating of a Central Park tribute to Scott. In 1871, the centennial of Scott’s birth, a group of Scottish-Americans managed to get a statue in his honor along what is now Literary Walk. Sir John Steell (also responsible for the park’s Burns statue) created a bronze replica of his 1845 marble of Scott in the two men’s native Edinburgh. Unveiled in November 1872, it shows Scott dressed in a flowing cloak with workingman’s shoes, book and pen in hand, and his favorite dog, Maida, at his feet. This is what I saw when I took this photograph three years ago this past May.