I have been working on John Ruskin for nearly a quarter century, first introduced to him by a long-time colleague at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Claudette Columbus, in the mid-1980s during a semester when we taught a course together on “London in the Nineteenth Century.” Sociologist that I am, I wanted our students to read the giants in my field who not only had lived in London during that tumultuous time, but who had written books regarded as classics of social thought while they walked and talked there, Marx and Engels prime among them. While Claudette had no objection to including such celebrated thinkers, her list, given that she was Professor of English and Comparative Literature with a specialty in 19th century English literature, was different. We would read some Tennyson and Browning, she said, some Dickens, some Carlyle, and some Ruskin. Delighted with the suggestion of the first four, I was forced to admit, a bit sheepishly, that I had no idea who this last fellow, Ruskin, was. She said that, unfortunately, I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. Many were enveloped by the same darkness, a tragedy given the level of Ruskin’s genius and the depth of his thought on virtually every matter of significance in life.
Once I learned for myself how right my colleague was, my intellectual life was transformed. For, in this now-all-but-buried (once) eminent Victorian, I discovered what I had been looking for during the more than two decades which had disappeared after I received my PhD: a sociologist (actually, a “proto-sociologist”) whose analytical brilliance was not only unsurpassed, but whose approach to social life, in contradistinction to most of those who call themselves sociologists these days (the majority seeing themselves as “objective, scientific reporters,” for whom value judgments are anathema), was unabashedly moral. Like Plato, my other great mentor in thinking carefully about the nature of social life, Ruskin took it as axiomatic that the reason anyone studied society was so that we might come to understand what forms of social arrangement were good for human beings and which were inimical. Since, I haven’t looked back. For those interested in learning more about this journey, my paper, “Why Ruskin?”–written to answer the question I have been asked hundreds of times since I started down this remarkable, helpful path–can be downloaded on the Writing Ruskin Page. If you’d prefer, you can ask for a bound copy by sending me an e-mail at email@example.com.
For anyone interested, below is a link to my Curriculum Vitae, which, in this version, attends mainly to my Ruskin work. If you wish to be in touch about any aspect of it, send an e-mail to the address just noted.