Tuesday, August 07, 2012

last ruskin

Once again I've reached a crossroads point in my Ruskin reading, & it's time to take a deep breath. I have, for all intents & purposes, finished the Library Edition. That is, I've finished the first 34 volumes. All that remains are Vol. 35, Praeterita and Dilecta (which I've already read a few times in other editions), vols. 36 & 37, which are a small sample (but hefty in themselves – well over 1000 pages) of Ruskin's letters, and vols. 38 & 39, a bibliography and index. Maybe in days to come I'll post a few notes on the last few volumes I've read (but not here – see note at end of post); right now I'm wondering about Praeterita.

You see, I'm teaching a graduate seminar devoted to JR this fall (beginning in a bit over two weeks – eek!), and of course Praeterita is on the reading list. And this summer I read well into the book in the edition I'll be using, a nice Oxford World's Classics edited by Francis O'Gorman. It's gotten pretty marked up, as any teaching text should be. But I'm wondering: I've got just about enough time, given the various projects on my desk – a major essay to finish by next week, a couple of tenure review files, the usual beginning-of-semester mishugas – to reread the book before classes begin. Should I a) forge ahead in O'Gorman, leaving the Library Edition volume untouched, or b) begin again with the Library Edition, and then read the rest of O'Gorman along with my students over the course of the semester (which, truth to tell, I'd do anyway), or c) do a "parallel" reading, working mainly in (and marking) O'Gorman, while consulting each page of the LE for useful footnotes and snazzy illustrations?

This "quandary," I'm afraid, does little more than illustrate my mild OCD, which gets more & more obvious as the years go by.

Cook & Wedderburn's introduction to this volume, however, is quite interesting. As usual (every volume in the LE has an introduction that clocks in somewhere over 50 pages), they give a narrative of Ruskin's life during the years in question, then a compositional history of the works contained in the volume proper. Here, there's very much a valedictory feel to the whole thing. They know it's really the last volume, so they provide a touching but not over-thorough account of Ruskin's last years, along with a summary of all the memorials given him. The latest, they point out, is this very edition: "Last among the memorials to Ruskin comes the present edition of his Life, Letters, and Works."

I'm struck by this formulation, how much it sets the LE within a very Victorian context (think Strachey's preface to Eminent Victorians, where he slams the Victorian commemorative biography:  
Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead – who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshop style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cort├ęge of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism. One is tempted to suppose, of some of them, that they were composed by that functionary, as the final item of his job.
Cook would later digest the biographical portions of his volume introductions into a single two-volume biography of JR.) The LE, unlike most modern editions of an author – think the Oxford Shakespeare, or the Oxford Middleton, or the California Duncan – aims to give us the whole of Ruskin. Not just the works, but the life, the letters, every possible interesting scrap. In the volume I've just finished (#33), there's a substantial section of "Ruskiniana," which consists of descriptions of Ruskin's writing habits, his thoughts on typography, reported conversations with him, etc. etc. ("Ruskin on Cats in Heaven," for instance.) 

As I recall, Auden is the most recent author for which we have a volume devoted wholly to "table talk." I can't say I wouldn't welcome such collections for any number of contemporaries. But then, I'm turning into a Victorian as I speak.
For those of my 7 readers who've borne patiently with my Ruskin-obsession over the past few years – you'll be glad to know that I'm farming off further Ruskin commentary onto another blog, which will run parallel with the Ruskin seminar I'm teaching this fall semester. So Culture Industry will be devoted, as I always meant it to be, to poetry & music & other matters of kulchural interest, & this irritating Ruskiniana will be thankfully sequestered to its own little space on the blogosphere. But I'll let you know when that's up & running, in case you're interested.

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