Sunday, September 16, 2012

ruskin & norton: the correspondence

[Charles Eliot Norton, by Samuel Worcester Rowse]

I’ve just finished volume 36 of the Library Edition of Ruskin, the first of two fat volumes of letters, and I’ve found myself taking yet another detour as I head down the home stretch of this two+ year odyssey of scaling what I’ve come to think of as “The Maroon Mountain.” I’ve turned, that is, to John Bradley and Ian Ousby’s 1987 Cambridge UP edition of The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton. Here’s why: 

Norton, not many years younger than Ruskin, was a well-to-do Boston Brahmin type with a keen interest in literature and the arts, which he cultivated to some degree under the tutelage of Ruskin, whom he had met in 1855 on a trip to England. He’d paid a visit to Denmark Hill to see Ruskin’s Turners; the two men met by chance the next year on a boat on Lake Geneva, and eventually they formed one of the closest friendships of Ruskin’s life (tho largely epistolary). Many of Ruskin’s most searchingly personal letters are to Norton; he seemed to pour out many of his deepest fears, desires, and ambitions to the American, and their friendship weathered seveeral severe storms – Ruskin’s bitter scorn for the bloodshed of the Civil War, Norton’s distaste at the revelations of Froude’s biography of Carlyle (Ruskin thought Froude had done justice to Carlyle in his warts-and-all depiction): Ruskin named Norton (who had founded the Atlantic, & become a professor at Harvard) one of his literary executors, and Praeterita ends with an evocation of the two men’s 1870 visit to Siena.

As I worked my way thru the first Library Edition volume of letters (thru 1869, that is) I began to note the increasing frequency of letters to Norton; it seemed like every third letter, sometimes every other letter, was to Norton. The letters to Norton, indeed, seem to come to dominate the LE’s presentation of Ruskin’s correspondence.

Here’s what was going on:

When Edward Tyas Cook and Alexander Wedderburn laid out the plans for the Library Edition soon after Ruskin’s death in 1900, they mapped out an edition of 30 volumes, but knew there would probably be more: already collected works might take up more space in a fully annotated edition than they did in available editions – they planned on only 2 volumes for Fors, for instance, which ultimately fills 3 in the LE – and unexpected materials might turn up that warranted publication. Cook and Wedderburn were flexible about what would go into the LE, but they intended to reprint everything by Ruskin that had already been published; unpublished works might or might not be included, depending on their importance. Here they had a lot to choose from, as there were reams of manuscript materials at Ruskin’s home at Brantwood, and scores of thousands of letters in the hands of various correspondents.

Cook & Wedderburn put out a call to correspondents for copies of Ruskin’s letters, to be used for the biographical material at the beginning of each LE volume or possibly to be included in a final volume of “Letters.” They meant to make a rigorous but representative selection, not the two-volume leviathan that now makes up volumes 36 & 37 of the edition. But their own stricture of reprinting everything Ruskin had written that was now in print got in the way. Wedderburn had edited Ruskin’s letters to the press in 1880 as Arrows of the Chace, and those were included in the edition, tho not in the “Letters” volume. Ruskin himself had allowed his letters to Susan Beever to be published in 1887 under the title Hortus Inclusus – so all of those letters had to be reprinted, and were accordingly folded into “Letters.” And every letter of Ruskin’s which had been quoted in someone’s memoirs, printed in someone’s biography, or even cited at length in an auction catalogue, had to be reprinted.

And then there was Norton. When Cook & Wedderburn contacted Norton about what they knew was his huge hoard of Ruskin letters, he panicked, as it were. He already felt Ruskin had written and published way too much in his later years, revealed far too much of himself (Norton thought Hortus Inclusus had been a terrible idea); and he was entirely unwilling to let Cook & Wedderburn do whatever they wanted – up to & including printing them all – with the personally revealing letters of Ruskin’s he’d received. So Norton himself edited & published a long set of the Ruskin letters in the Atlantic, then in 1904 himself issued with Houghton Mifflin a more or less complete two-volume collection of what he rightly considered the most important surviving continuous run of Ruskin’s correspondence.

Cook & Wedderburn were, one assumes, appalled. As they told Norton as soon as the Houghton Mifflin volumes hit their shelves, they’d had no intention of quoting from any of the letters to him without his express permission, much less of publishing the letters as a whole. But now they were boxed in by their own editorial guidelines: they embargoed sales of the Houghton Mifflin collection in the UK, and set about incorporating every last one of Norton’s letters into their own “Letters” volumes – swelling them I’d guess by at least 400 pages.

But Norton, as his reaction to Froude’s life of Carlyle might indicate, had had no intention of embarrassing his friend’s memory. His own edition of Ruskin’s letters to him is pretty heavily censored, removing many personal details & most references to money matters. And when he was finished editing, he destroyed a great many letters (& left instructions to his daughter to destroy as many more as she saw fit before handing the rest over the Harvard’s library).

So I’m reading Ousby & Bradley’s more recent edition, not merely because its annotations are somewhat more complete than Cook & Wedderburn’s, but because they print the letters in full, without Norton’s omissions. Alas, there’s a pretty significant number of them which are available only by way of the Houghton Mifflin/Cook & Wedderburn edition, as their original holographs have been destroyed. We can only guess what Ruskin had to say there (tho as Ousby and Bradley argue, there are probably no real surprises).

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