Friday, April 16, 2010

a shilling life

My idiosyncracies may not be particularly fruitful, but they're mine, & I have to own up to 'em. It occurred to me the other day as I finished Francis O'Gorman's Ruskin (Sutton Pocket Biographies) (Sutton, 1999) that I've got a real taste for what I can only call "highbrow fast food." That is, while I have more than a half-dozen full-length biographies of John Ruskin on my shelves (& have even read a bunch of them), I also persist in running thru the various super-short capsule "shilling lives" I come upon.

The recent history of the capsule biography – has it been written?? – is I suspect a capsule history of 20th-century intellectual marketing trends. We see capsule biographies, as in Diogenes Laertius' lives of the philosophers, in Plutarch, or in Johnson's Lives of the Poets, emerging even before the full-length biography. And they don't go away with the advent of the post-Boswellian doorstop biography: witness Leslie's Stephen's Dictionary of National Biography, and its various spinoffs.

In the latter part of the 20th century, it seems, short-scale biographical/critical studies, aimed at a wide readership, have gotten even more popular. Should this be dated to the inception of the Frank Kermode-edited Fontana Modern Masters series in 1970? Oxford UP responded to the popularity of the Fontana volumes with its own Past Masters series, & in recent years there seems to have been a spate of "Very Short Introductions," pocket lives, & even graphic novel-style adaptations of various figures' lives. (The interchangeability of many of these series is striking – various volumes of the OUP "Very Short Introductions" series are actually reprints of "Past Masters" volumes.)

Is it all an index of a general readership's thirsty demand for immediate enlightenment? Or is it a symptom of our painfully shrinking attention spans?
Herewith an assessment of some of the Ruskin "shorties" out there (if you know of others, do let me know):

Quentin Bell's Ruskin (George Braziller, 1978), which came from my father's library, & was the first Ruskin book I ever read, doesn't quite fit in the "capsule biography" category; it was first published in 1963 as part of the Hogarth Press's "Writers and Critics" series, & is actually quite a substantial assessment of JR's life & career, clocking in at around 150 beautifully-written pages. This is probably still the first book (not by Ruskin) I'd press on someone wanting to know more about Ruskin.

George P. Landow is one of the best of the old-school Ruskin scholars, proprietor of the excellent Victorianweb research site. His The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton UP, 1971) is exhaustive & exhausting, but his Ruskin (1985) in the Oxford "Past Masters" series does a splendid job of surveying the life & work in about 90 pages.

Robert Hewison is the most prolific Ruskin scholar I know, paying particular attention to Ruskin's art criticism (of the many Ruskin books he's published, several are exhibition catalogues). Hewison's John Ruskin (2007), in the OUP "Very Interesting People" series, is on its face longer than Landow by about 30 pages, but in reality quite a bit shorter, as it's printed in a larger typeface with far more generous margins & spacing. The "Very Interesting People" series is really just another Oxford recycling project – the series, which features David Levine-style pen & ink caricatures on the covers, & describes itself as "Bite-sized biographies of Britain's most fascinating historical figures, amounts to paperback reprints of some of the more substantial entries in the 2004 Dictionary of National Biography. As befits a DNB entry, Hewison's life of Ruskin is sober & informative, but it's far less lively & searching than Landow's.

Alas, Francis O'Gorman's Ruskin (Sutton, 1999) is the loser among this bunch. The Sutton Pocket Biographies are "Highly readable brief lives of those who have played a significant part in history, and whose contributions still influence contemporary history." For "highly readable," I'm tempted to read "dumbed down." Fontana's Modern Masters & Oxford Past Masters, for all their implicit popular appeal, never condescended: Jonathan Culler on Saussure or Barthes, Martin Esslin on Artaud, Donald Davie on Pound (all Fontana), Anthony Kenny on Aquinas, Rosemary Ashton on George Eliot, Peter Singer on Hege (all Oxford) – all of these were highly sophisticated advanced introductions. But O'Gorman, who's done his share of real Ruskin criticism, seems to take his assignment from Sutton as a kind of scholarly holiday, chance to ramble over the life & trot out a few touchstone quotations from Ruskin; the Sutton Ruskin is breezy, readable, & in the end as forgettable as a 50-minute History Channel biography.

So there, Ruskinian Padwan: begin with Bell, if you can find him. If not, read Landow (read Landow anyway). Hewison is optional; O'Gorman is not recommended.

Of course, what I'm really hoping for is the graphic novel Ruskin (cf. the "For Beginners" series). If there's an artist who's itching to draw JR, I'm game to script it.


Vance Maverick said...

Did you read the Bertrand Russell comic book? It's pleasant, but didn't inspire (in me, at least) much hope that ideas can be discussed that way. Admittedly, Ruskin's ideas generally have visual referents, so it might be a more tractable case.

Mark Scroggins said...

I hadn't seen the Russell, but it looks interesting -- the art, at least, looks competent. The Ruskin Foundation at Brantwoood sponsored at least two issues of "Ruskin Comics" at one point, one based on Modern Painters and the other on To This Last. Disappointing, tho fun. I can't find the links online anymore, but I'd be happy to b/c you the PDF I downloaded of one of them.

Katherine said...

Quentin Bell was my introduction, too - then I sat and read Sesame and Lilies, all downhill from there. Same summer I read "Little Journeys."
Do you remember what else you were reading at the time?

Mark Scroggins said...

Well, I'm getting to the point where I can't remember what I had for lunch, so of course not, that was 10 years ago!

But I'm totally OCD, so it's written down -- I was reading of course a ton of poetry (David Bromige & Myung Mi Kim especially) & gearing up for a Joyce grad seminar, so I was downing large doses of Joyce criticism. Didn't get around to reading the little Everyman edition of Unto This Last & the political economy writings for a couple of months, but was totally hooked. However loony the man got thereafter, I could roll with it.