Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2006
by Scott Snyder, The Believer, June 2006
by Charles D'Ambrosio, The Believer, May 2006
Ideas issue of the New York Times Magazine, December 2005, February 2002 (core member of Surrealist movement, painter, poet, wife of Max Ernst and author of Between Lives: An Artist and Her World)
The New York Times Magazine, August 2001 (actor and playwright)
Time Out New York, January 1997 (on publicaton of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again)

Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind
By James Buchan

By John Glassie
(Dallas Morning News, January 2004)

In the last half of the 18th century, author James Buchan writes, Edinburgh, "a city that had for centuries been a byword for poverty, religious bigotry, violence and squalor laid the mental foundations for the modern world."

At least on the surface, then, Buchan and Arthur Herman, author of the rather pop bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World, are in agreement. Indeed, a number of recent books have paid tribute to the enormous influence of Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson, et al.

We have romantic notions about such flourishings of intellectual and artistic innovation. But Buchan's new book, Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh's Moment of the Mind, seems meant to serve as a catalog of what really happened in Edinburgh. And in ways both intentional and not, he takes the romance out of the story.

We're given a detailed analysis of the practical circumstances that led to so much philosophical activity in one place at one time. Following the 1707 union with England, Edinburgh ceased to be a seat of power and, following the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, began to lose some of its crushing religiosity. Backwards Scotland faced not only an identity crisis but a very real need to reinvent, or at least to reexamine, its place -- economically, politically and culturally -- in a larger world that was itself being transformed by revolutions of industry, agriculture and reason.

The spirit of inquiry resulted in much more than the "capitalist" output the 18th century Scots are most famous for today: Ferguson's division of labor and Smith's homage to industry and manufacturing. Indeed, the author takes aim at the "picture of Adam Smith as the apostle of amoral modern capitalism." Smith's writings ranged from "cosmology through language to morals," from Italian verse to garden topiary, from The Theory of Moral Sentiments to, yes, The Wealth of Nations.

Buchan shows, too, that the Enlightenment was about much more than a mere handful of famous philosophers and writers. There was chemist Joseph Black, for instance, whose development of carbon dioxide "transformed understanding of respiration, mine safety and soil science, let alone soda water," and whose work with evaporation and latent heat were "indispensable" to another Scot, James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. There was James Hutton who helped push the science of geology into being with his Theory of the Earth. And there was Sir James Stuart, "the unluckiest of philosophers," whose portrayal of money as a "monstrous system" influenced Hegel and, in turn, Karl Marx.

But there are also more painstaking references in Crowded with Genius to hundreds of minor figures, places, dates and incidents in the city's history than most readers will find compelling. This is the convincing if tedious part of Buchan's argument that "nothing in history is sudden or enchanted."

And it's this belief that seems to prompt his closing regret: that it was unfortunately the Scots themselves -- novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott in particular -- who later put "Scotland and its ancient capital into the romantic center of the world, where they have stayed more or less ever since."

A highly praised novelist as well as historian, Buchan in this case seems to be courting the academics and leaving general interest readers alone to pick the larger story of the Scottish Enlightenment out of the text.