Ruskin Our Contemporary?

The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin

by John Dixon Hunt
Viking, 512 pp., $25.00

The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin

edited by George Allan Cate
Stanford University Press, 251 pp., $28.50

The Ruskin Polygon

edited by John Dixon Hunt, by Faith M. Holland
Manchester University Press, 284 pp., £30.00

New Approaches to Ruskin: Thirteen Essays

edited by Robert Hewison
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 229 pp., $22.50

Studies in Ruskin: Essays in Honor of Van Akin Burd

edited by Robert E. Rhodes, by Del Ivan Janik
Ohio University Press, 244 pp., $20.95

Letters from the Continent 1858

edited by John Hayman
University of Toronto Press, 207 pp., $29.50

Ruskin and Venice

by Jeanne Clegg
Junction Books (London), 233 pp., £12.50

Ruskinian Gothic: The Architecture of Deane and Woodward, 1845-1861

by Eve Blau
Princeton University Press, 219 pp., $40.00; $16.50 (paper)

The Poison Sky: Myth and Apocalypse in Ruskin

by Raymond E. Fitch
Ohio University Press, 722 pp., $35.00

Raymond Fitch begins his remarkable intellectual biography of John Ruskin (The Poison Sky) by observing that Ruskin was, before all other things,

the great Victorian prophet of what we would now call the apparent deterioration of life. Stylist, aesthete, economist, moralist, glaciologist, naturalist, or nympholept he may also have been, but the compulsive current of his many works is his rising nausea at the prospect of a global slum, a depleted planet…something close to our own recurrent sense that chaos is coming again, that our culture has been blighted, that the world’s body has been infected by its mind…[and by] life’s struggle with wealth.

Here are eleven books published within recent months, 3,527 pages, more than a million words. Does this mean that people are reading Ruskin again with some dawning sense of the relevance of his gloomy prophecies—and with the strange pleasure we feel at the idea that things, even horrible things, can be foreknown?

Ruskin’s work, which is classified as criticism or, more vaguely, as “literature,” though it is neither biography, nor poetry, nor fiction, has never been widely read, and only some of it has been interesting to any one generation or faction at a time, facets of Ruskin coming in and out of fashion like phases of the moon. Today we share his regard for Turner as his contemporaries did not, but until only recently we have derided his taste for architectural decoration; postmodern architects may well be reading him on that. Brian Maidment talks about how Ruskin’s works have become a “source of authority for almost any kind of anti-industrial social melioration, a rallying place for an extraordinary diversity of ruralist, progressive, liberal, reactionary, or anti-Victorian views, many of them never remotely mindful of the original intentions of his work.” Perhaps it seems newly important to divine these original intentions; the difficulties remain apparent. Or perhaps instead of a reflection of our common yearnings, the new tide of words is mere academic coincidence, the operation of some cyclical principle that governs the ebb and flow of literary reputations or university jobs.

Or yet again, perhaps there is always a vanguard of exegetes going over rediscovered texts, like a mine squad, so that regular people may swim safely. In the vanguard scholars speak, as here, mostly to each other, and the number of knowledgeable Ruskinians, to judge from the recurrence of names in the indexes and bibliographies of these books, is small. Of these books, only John Dixon Hunt’s biography The Wider Sea, and Ruskin’s correspondence with Thomas Carlyle, edited by George Allan Cate, are apt to have much general interest, though most readers would find something or other among the many good essays in the three volumes of miscellaneous essays: The Ruskin Polygon, edited by Hunt, with Faith Holland; New Approaches to Ruskin, edited by Robert Hewison, who also contributes to a third miscellany, Studies in Ruskin: Essays in Honor of Van Akin Burd, edited …

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