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James Macpherson

Macpherson, James, 1736–96, Scottish author. Educated at Aberdeen and Edinburgh, he spent his early years as a schoolmaster. In later life he held a colonial secretaryship in West Florida (1764–66), and he was a member of Parliament from 1780 until his death. In 1760, at the insistence of John Home and others, he published Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, supposedly his own translations of ancient Gaelic poems. Later he published translations of two epic poems, Fingal (1761) and Temora (1763), which were represented as the work of a 3d-century Irish bard named Ossian. A collection, The Works of Ossian, appeared in 1765. Samuel Johnson and others heatedly challenged the authenticity of the poems. After Macpherson's death an investigating committee of scholars agreed that he had used some ancient Gaelic poems and traditions, but composed most of the supposedly ancient poetry himself. His prose poems, written in a loose, rhythmical style, filled with supernaturalism and melancholy, influenced powerfully the rising romantic movement in literature, especially German literature. Macpherson also wrote several histories.

See T. B. Saunders, Life and Letters of James Macpherson (1894, repr. 1969); study by D. S. Thomson (1951); I. Haywood, The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to 18th Century Ideas of History and Fiction (1987).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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