Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hunt on Ruskin

Just finished John Dixon Hunt's The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin (Viking, 1982). A very good read, all told. It's maybe the 4th Ruskin biography I've read, in some ways the most likeable. Tim Hilton's 2-volume monster remains the book of record for me, but I can't imagine anyone who's not already addicted to JR launching out on the uncharted seas of Hilton's big 2nd volume. Wolfgang Kemp's The Desire of My Eyes – well, I read it while I was doing heavy research at the HRC in Austin, & don't remember a thing about it; might've been good. John Batchelor's John Ruskin: No Wealth but Life is still the one I recommend to beginners – very gracefully & sympathetically written, very strong on Ruskin's late political & economic obsessions.

But Hunt is very good indeed, in the 400-page compass of his life. A trifle more suggestive than explicit when it comes to critical & interpretive moments; me, I like my literary biography to be thoroughly "critical." Hunt does however throw out a couple of ideas that seize my imagination: The likeness of Ruskin's mind & work to a Kunst-und-Wunderkammer, a chamber of curios of the sort so beloved by the Victorians & Romantics, but blown up to an enormous scale; and the extent to which all the natural & cultural phenomena with which Ruskin was so fascinated were interconnected in his mind, & how the fragmentary & digressive forms of his late work are an attempt to forge literary form to embody those interconnections.

Hunt himself is a scholar for whom I have an enormous deal of respect, even awe. How did his generation – & here I'm thinking as well of Frank Kermode, Annabel Patterson, et al. – manage to be so prolific? I can't find a birth date, but Hunt's first book – on the Pre-Raphaelites – came out in 1968, so he was probably born sometime in the 1940s. In the purely literary field, he's published lives of Andrew Marvell & Ruskin, edited a collection of essays on Ruskin, & written a commentary on The Tempest. On the other side of the fence – garden history & theory – he absolutely dominates the field, having edited at least 4 books & written 8 of his own, including most recently a full-length study of Ian Hamilton Finlay. His bibliography makes me weary just looking at it.
I'm beginning to get a trifle nervous – we're leaving for New York this Friday, for the better part of the rest of the summer. So before then I need to get my book orders for the fall in, figure out what books to pack & ship, sort out my list of priorities, etc. All in the baking heat (broken for a bit yesterday by a line of torrential thunderstorms; welcome to hurricane season).

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