The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is one of Scotland’s most famous literary works, characterized by a macabre sensibility, postmodern narrative structure, and a beguiling blend of religious fanaticism, the gothic, political intrigue, and sex. James Hogg, known for his folk ballads and contributions to the Edinburgh literary scene, published the novel anonymously in 1824, worried that it was too “replete with horror” to attach his name to it. He dedicated the novel to the Lord Provost of Glasgow and encouraged his friends to spread the word that he was not the novel’s author.
Hogg set his novel in Scotland between 1687 and 1712 when tensions between the Highlands (seen as “gothic,” Gaelic, backward) and the Lowlands (English-speaking, civilized) were inflamed.
At the time of its publication, critics were concerned with, as Ross McKay sums up, “narrative inconsistency, needless ambiguity, and indecency.” Most contemporary critics were caught up in the theological issues and paid little attention to its artistic achievement. It did not sell well, and failed to alleviate Hogg’s chronic poverty. He did not attempt to write a novel again.
In 1837 a posthumous version was issued (clearly not Hogg’s work) that was extensively revised by toning down some of the religious controversy, removing inappropriate parts, and reducing some of the narrative confusion by taking out the concluding cameo of James Hogg. This remained the general text of the novel until a reprint of the original text came out in 1895.
The novel has been much better received in the 20th century. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Andre Gide praised the work as “so singular and so enlightening” and claimed that it “voluptuously tormented” him. His introduction to the 1947 edition helped popularize it in the wider reading public.
Critics today see the novel as influential to the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There have been novels based on the book, 2009 and 2013 theater renditions, a 1985 Polish film adaptation, and various other screenplays.