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How Robbie Burns Inspired American Literature

By January 25, 2016January 24th, 2018Literature

We often see reverent nods to one work of art in another, and filmmakers, musicians and writers have been giving nods to their greats since the start of time, or stories at least.

Today, 25th January it’s Burns Night, to celebrate the great Scottish poet and lyricist and so we’re going to look at the way he has influenced the great American literature that you might love! You may not think about Robert Burns in connection with John Steinbeck or J. D. Salinger, but that’s about to change.

I’m writing this from a UK perspective but for us we see how enthusiastic our American cousins are for British works, and how much the USA looks to classic British literature for its themes. Robert (Rabbie) Burns has great influence over Scotland and is revered there, and throughout the world his memory reverberates every year as we sing Auld Lang Syne (probably not written by Burns, but he’s credited with its popularity) at New Year. Not all of his other works are that well known around the world, but they clearly were by some as we see reflected in American classics we enjoy today.

There’s not many an English student who hasn’t read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but did you know that the book is named after Burns’ poem To A Mouse, and more specifically the line “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. It’s no coincidence that the book follows the narrative of the inspiration of the poem, the accidental destruction of a mouse nest while ploughing fields.

Steinbeck wasn’t the only inspired American either, if we look at Salinger’s coming of age novel, Catcher in the Rye we’ll see that it also takes inspiration from Burns and a children’s song Comin’ Thro’ the Rye. Caulfield even talks of a dream he has where he saves children from running over the edge of a cliff “I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going. I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”.

Burns Night is celebrated every year in Scotland, and in 2009 he was voted the greatest Scotsman of all time. If you’d like to find out more about the man, and his works then the Poems and Songs of Robert Burns is a very good place to start.

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