R. B. Cunninghame Graham (1987)

University of Edinburgh Journal 33 (1987)

The North American Sketches of R. B. Cunninghame Graham, edited by John Walker. Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1986. Pp. x+145. £12.50.

There have been numerous attempts already to “re-introduce” Cunninghame Graham to the general reader, but John Walker’s is by far the most comprehensive and scholarly to date. The North American Sketches is the third in a series which already includes South American and Scottish Sketches, with the promise of Spanish and North African pieces to follow.

Graham’s prose style admittedly, may be a little off-putting to some – sentences like “At the first dawn, or rather at the first false dawn, when the fallacious streaks of pink flash in the sky and fade again to night, all were afoot” abound. These are only superficial blemishes, however. Professor Walker tells us that his principal objective has always been to encourage study of Graham’s stories “as manifestations of his literary skill”, not simply as reflections of his flamboyant personality, and some of those included in this volume certainly go a long way towards establishing his case. “Progress”, for example – that wry commentary on the inevitable clash between “civilisation” and a new Mexican cult which preaches abstention from paying taxes; or “A Hegira”, which John Masefield described as “the best thing he ever wrote”, a sort of cynic’s Incredible Journey. Some of the asides and footnotes even partially refute Don Roberto’s reputation as a man without a sense of humour. The comment that “Students have often remarked the similarity of the cap of liberty to a nightcap, but have not been able to give any reason for the cause. It may be that the cap of liberty is symbolic of the fact that man is only free in bed” is perhaps a little astringent, but still sufficiently amusing.

It is John Walker’s editorial labours which make this book so indispensable, however. His introduction quotes long and revealing passages from Graham’s correspondence at the time, long before he dreamed of writing up his experiences into “literature” (in fact he comments in one of them “I think I have no literary ability whatever”). He also includes a glossary, a bibliography, and a set of notes and introduction for each separate item. It would be possible to quarrel with some of Professor Walker’s specific interpretations, but his erudition in the field of (especially) Spanish literature makes him the ideal person to edit that man of two cultures, Cunninghame Graham.


University of Edinburgh Journal 33 (1987): 54.

[403 wds]

University of Edinburgh Journal 33 (1987): 54.

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