In the mid-1800s, John Ruskin — a serious, critical thinker — found himself trapped in a sort of public relations paradox. On the one hand, in Ruskin's time society granted writers and lecturers celebrity status; newspapers such as The Illustrated London News followed well-known authors and their exploits in the same way that politicians and actors are tracked today. On April 3, 1858, for example, The Illustrated London News reported about Charles Dickens,
On Friday evening (last week) Mr. Dickens read his "Christmas Carol" to the members of the Philosophical Institution, Edinburgh. There was an audience of at least 2000 persons, who expressed their delight and sympathy in the most enthusiastic manner. At the close the Lord Provost, in the name of the directors, presented to Mr. Dickens a silver Christmas wassail-bowl of elegant and elaborate workmanship. [The Illustrated London News, No. 911 Vol. XXXII]
Two separate observations about this passage each support the same point: first that two-thousand people — not children, but adults, members of Edinburgh's Philosophical Institution — would show up to Dickens's book reading, and second that the newspaper would cover the reading after the fact, as if it were a small national event, something to be remembered. The media, universities, and the general population regarded Charles Dickens and other authors as people worth listening to even outside of their celebrated texts, as public intellectuals who deserved year-round attention. Shortly after the reading at Edinburgh, on May 1, 1858, The Illustrated London News noted, "Mr. Charles Dickens will read his 'Chimes' at St. Martin's Hall on Thursday next, the 6th inst," and later that year, on Dec 11, 1858, it discussed how Dickens and another author had been given the honor of being the first people to have their visages captured by a relatively new technology — microscopic photographs:
Of the many results of photography, the most wonderful productions of the present day are a series of portraits of living celebrities taken on glass, as objects for the microscope. Those of Albert Smith and Charles Dickens, the first published... (The Illustrated London News, No. 949 Vol. XXXII)
John Ruskin, regarded by The Illustrated London News as a "popular author" of the time, enjoyed similar attention from the media. On March 27, 1858, Smith, Elder and Co. of The Illustrated London News published an extensive criticism of Ruskin's "The Political Economy of Art":
Having given it a careful perusal, we are almost at a loss what to say about it, and for the simple reason that we do not understand it. By this we do not mean to say that it is written in obscure language, either as to vocabulary or construction, or that there is any individual passage the absolute import of which we are unable to discover; but that it so abounds in extraordinary positions, irreconcilable equally with our general notions of things and with one another, that we are utterly at a loss to guess at the author's drift, or the conclusion he wishes to establish by it. We are sorry for this; but at the same time find some consolation in the author's avowal that we are not singular in the want of capacity for appreciating his writings, but that the fault is some general defect attributable to the intellectual character of the age in which we live.
Now, as to the rather singular title of the little book before us, Mr. Ruskin in his preface candidly tells us that he has "never read any author on political economy except Adam Smith, twenty years ago;" and, judging by the result as exhibited in these pages, we must conclude that that casual perusal made but a very slight and uncertain impression on his mind. (The Illustrated London News, No. 910 Vol. XXXII)
From today's perspective, the deep sarcasm in this criticism might feel a little excessive, uncalled-for. It sounds like the sort of angry rebuttal an editorial might make against the beliefs or actions of a politician, not of an author. Once again, though, the critics' tone can be attributed largely to the enlarged status of writers and lecturers during the 1800s, something that faded over the years, by some arguments, due to cheaper and faster printing methods. John Ruskin noticed the beginning of this trend, this movement away from regarding authors as public intellectuals, and he became very frustrated by it. In a note written to The Illustrated London News, which the paper published on March 27, 1858, Ruskin remarked,
I have been much impressed lately by one of the results of the quantity of our books — namely, the stern impossibility of getting anything understood that required patience to understand. I observe always, in the case of my own writings, that if I ever state anything which has cost me any trouble to ascertain, and which, therefore, will probably require a minute or two of reflection from the reader before it can be accepted, that statement will not only be misunderstood, but in all probability be taken to mean very nearly the reverse of what it does mean. (The Illustrated London News, No. 910 Vol. XXXII)
Ruskin scorned cheap printing methods for the way they allowed comparatively untalented authors to mass produce texts that the public found entertaining but that, he felt, did nothing to enrich its readers' minds. In fact, Ruskin thought that as people got more used to reading less thought-provoking works of literature, they became less receptive of anything complex or nuanced. An awful irony, though, Ruskin's public relations paradox, comes to light in the "New Books" section of The Illustrated London News:
CHEAP BOOKS — Surplus Copies of Tom Brown's School Days, Livingstone's Africa, Ruskin and Turner's Harbours of England [...] NOW ON SALE at BULL'S LIBRARY, at GREATLY REDUCED PRICES (The Illustrated London News, No. 914 Vol. XXXII)
Ruskin so hated contemporary publishing practice, in which publishers discounted book prices thus hurting authors, that he sidestepped them, setting up one of his servants, George Allen, as a publisher. Allen's company eventually became the major publisher Allen & Unwin, the firm that published the magisterial Library Edition of Ruskin's works after his death. With this venture accomplished two things: First, according to some historians, he created modern book publishing. Second, having spent or given away most of the money he inherited, he made it all back with sales of his books!
Last modified 15 May 2009