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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John Watson (Ian Maclaren) (1850–1907)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
JOHN WATSON, whose widely familiar pen-name is Ian Maclaren, was a pure Scot, although he was born outside the Scottish borders in Manningtree, Essex, where his father, who was engaged in the Excise, happened to be stationed at the time. Shortly after his birth the family removed to London, where they stayed long enough for Dr. Watson to retain a distinct recollection of their residence there. The formative years of his childhood were spent however in Scotland, first at Perth and then at Stirling. He was an only child, and his parents were both remarkable personalities. To his mother’s influence and gifts are due much of her son’s equipment in life. She was Highland and understood Gaelic, which she used to say was the best language for love and for anger. To the observant reader of the ‘Bonnie Brier Bush’ it is needless to add that Dr. Watson’s mother died while he was still a young man. In due time young Watson went to the University of Edinburgh, where he excelled in the classics and in philosophy. He became secretary and afterwards president of the Philosophical Society connected with the University.  1
  When he had completed his studies he decided to enter the Free Church of Scotland, and passed through the curriculum of the New College. He also spent some time at Tübingen. Robert Louis Stevenson was a classmate of his in the English Literature class in the University; and Dr. Watson remembers the occasional visits Stevenson made to the class, and the round of cheers which invariably greeted his entrance into the classroom. Dr. A. B. Davidson, the well-known professor of Hebrew, made a deep impression on his mind while at college; and he was greatly molded by the friendships he formed there with such men as Dr. James Stalker, Professor Henry Drummond, and Professor George Adam Smith. At the gatherings of the “Gaiety Club” Dr. Watson used to tell, with the perfect art of a consummate raconteur, the stories which were later woven into the famous Drumtochty sketches. He said that the first author who made any impression on his mind was Scott, whom he read eagerly. He studied the Waverley Novels, with their prefaces, introductions, and notes, and became saturated with Scott’s spirit. Another stage of his development was marked by the influence of Carlyle, and still another by that of Matthew Arnold. Browning and Arnold, and Seeley the author of ‘Ecce Homo,’ have perhaps made the deepest impression upon his intellectual and spiritual activity. Thackeray was a later favorite.  2
  For a short period—about a year—after his ordination, he served as assistant pastor to Dr. J. H. Wilson of the Barclay Church in Edinburgh, before he became minister of the Free Church in Harrietfield, a small village consisting chiefly of one main street, belonging to the estate of Logiealmond in Perthshire, and now far-famed as Drumtochty; an uncle of his had been parish minister there at the time of the Disruption in 1843. The work amongst this people of primitive instincts, and simple fundamental needs, proved congenial; and he made a close study of them with a half-formed intention of using the material. But self-distrust and various plans intervening, his literary schemes were laid aside and were discarded, as the years distanced him from these early scenes and experiences. His gifts as a brilliant preacher could not be hid under a bushel; and two and a half years were all that he was permitted to spend at Logiealmond. Calls multiplied, and became insistent, until he ultimately accepted one from St. Matthew’s in Glasgow, where he became the colleague of Dr. Samuel Miller, in a pulpit celebrated for a succession of powerful preachers.  3
  But he found his true sphere, when, three years later, he became minister of Sefton Park Presbyterian Church, Liverpool. This took place in 1880; and Dr. Watson long remained the pastor of that church. His liberal views and catholicity of thought, his geniality and bright, winning disposition, ever drew to him men of all schools; and young men especially found a haven in Sefton Park for their varied intellectual cravings and aspirations. Dr. Watson’s church was constantly crowded by one of the largest and most influential congregations in Liverpool; and among the younger generation of English preachers Dr. Watson held a foremost place. He was a speaker of extraordinary force and clearness. He mingled culture and devotion with a strong sense of reverence and a deep-seated earnestness which enabled him to wield immense power over great masses of people. In 1896 the University of St. Andrew’s conferred the degree of D. D. upon him. In the same year he visited the United States, delivered the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale, later published as ‘The Cure of Souls,’ and was heard throughout the country as lecturer and reader from his own works.  4
  Dr. Watson’s literary plans of early years, when his young, alert mind was casting around for material to fasten upon for future developments, had been laid aside, and treated as dreams of a presumptuous youth. Up to 1894 he was quite unknown to the public as an author; and yet, in little more than a year after the publication of his first volume, ‘Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush,’ the sales had exceeded in England and America 200,000 copies.  5
  Much curiosity prevailed in England while the stories were appearing serially in the British Weekly under the pen-name “Ian Maclaren” (Ian, Gaelic for John, and Maclaren, his mother’s maiden name); and not until a month after the book had been published, was the author’s identity discovered. A year later, another volume of Drumtochty sketches, entitled ‘The Days of Auld Lang Syne,’ dealing with the same characters and scenes, was published with similar success. A small volume of consecutive sermons, applicable to the communion season, was issued at the beginning of 1896 under the title ‘The Upper Room’; and a large volume of discourses on practical religious themes, called ‘The Mind of the Master,’ appeared in the spring of the same year. In his first novel, ‘Kate Carnegie,’ Dr. Watson was wise in keeping to Drumtochty, and introducing a number of new characters, while bringing his readers into touch with others pleasantly familiar. In the central character, the young minister Carmichael, who figures already in ‘His Mother’s Sermon,’ one perceives a strong element of spiritual autobiography.  6
  Ian Maclaren differs from Sir James Barrie and Crockett in being more of a sentimentalist. There is a deeper thrill of religious emotion in his work; more of what Matthew Arnold, in his ignorance of the depths of Scottish nature, termed “intolerable pathos.” The mission of the preacher is evident in his eclecticism; for while he has chosen to subject himself to the difficulties in the way of handling simple human nature in the rough, he has preferred the good, the true, the noble, the suffering and sorrowing of his little community. Indeed, as one critic declared, there is an insolence of security in his attitude toward sorrow and death, which grates harshly when brought into touch with reality. But this criticism is borne more by his first than by his second volume, which is less spiritual and therefore more human,—more real. But Ian Maclaren’s power unquestionably lies in his large sympathy and enthusiasm of humanity, which is but another term for religious emotion. The transfiguring touch in all his characters, commonplace in themselves, takes place when the light of love and sacrifice falls upon them; “as when the sun shines on a fallow field,”—to quote a passage of his own,—“and the rough furrows melt into warmth and beauty.” Then his humor,—homely, strong, and flexible as the vernacular in which much of it is clothed,—saves him on the whole from maudlin scenes, and the excess of an essentially optimistic sentimentalism, as also does his sturdy, shrewd common-sense. For pure and dry but not ungenial drollery, there is nothing in the two volumes to match ‘Our Sermon Taster’ and ‘A Triumph in Diplomacy’; unless it be parts of ‘A Nippy Tongue,’ where Ian Maclaren comes nearer to Galt than any of his contemporaries, Barrie himself not excepted. And it is the introduction of this perfect character, Jamie Soutar, into ‘A Servant Lass’ which prevents it from becoming too depressingly sad, and gives us Ian Maclaren at his best throughout one whole story.  7
  Popular favor however is not always guided by artistic principles; and for obvious reasons the ‘Doctor of the Old School’ will probably continue to hold a first place, and in that section of the ‘Bonnie Brier Bush’ the chapter entitled ‘The Doctor’s Last Journey’ will always stir the emotions most deeply. The pathos of the closing scenes is almost unbearable, and no Scotsman can read them with a dry heart.  8
  Doctor Watson continued his literary activity up to the time of his death, which took place on May 6th, 1907, and ‘Children of the Resurrection’ was published posthumously in 1912. Much of his later work was devotional in character, but his books in a lighter vein, such as ‘Young Barbarian’ (1901) and ‘His Majesty, Baby’ (1902), continued to attract a wide circle of readers, although they had not the phenomenal success of his earlier stories.  9
 
 
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