The Man Who Gave Brontë Eyes, and Other News


On the Shelf

A caricature of John Ruskin from Vanity Fair, 1872.


  • Let’s say you had to choose one genre, just one, in which you’d prefer your politicians to write with rigor and fluency. Political theory, you might say. Or biography. Probably not even those of us with a bona-fide death wish for the republic (anarchists, accelerationists, the Joker) would say “Civil War alternate history.” But that’s exactly what we have in Bannon and Gingrich—connoisseurs of the uniquely depraved world of ahistorical warmongering. Paul Mason writes, “Bannon, the White House chief of staff and Donald Trump’s closest aide, believes the next phase of American history should be as catastrophic and traumatic as the conflict of 1861–65 … [Gingrich] took time out from impeaching Bill Clinton to co-author three excruciatingly dire alt-history novels about the Civil War. In Never Call Retreat, the final in the trilogy, written by Gingrich with William Forstchen and Albert Hanser, the Union side wins the war but, by implication, the South wins the peace. With Sherman’s Union army poised to destroy Atlanta, the Confederate commander, Robert E Lee, persuades the South to surrender. ‘The patience of our opponents is at an end,’ this fictional Lee tells the Confederate government. ‘We shall reap a terrible whirlwind that will scar our nation for generations to come.’ ”
  • Anna Aslanyan writes on the exasperating indifference with which the court system treats its interpreters, who are only responsible for, you know, 100 percent of the communication between the state and the accused: “Translation is like rubbish collection: no one notices it until something goes wrong … Much of court interpreting is simultaneous: you sit next to a defendant and whisper in their ear as you listen to the proceedings. You have to be familiar with legal procedures and fluent in legalese as there is no time to decode ‘ABH’ or invent a term for ‘corporate manslaughter’. You also need to be able to temper your language depending on who you are interpreting for: a drug addict going through withdrawal, a graduate with some knowledge of legal arguments, or an emotionally unstable person with a patchy understanding of the situation. These skills require constant practice … As qualified interpreters stop working for the courts, standards keep slipping—yet more evidence, if it were needed, that outsourcing doesn’t improve services.”

  • Poor John Ruskin. Once he was beloved by the entire Anglophone world; now it’s just my one friend who has Ph.D. in Victorian literature. Recalling Ruskin’s past greatness, Danny Heitman writes, “It’s hard for contemporary readers to grasp how famous Ruskin once was. Reverently read and reflexively quoted, his pronouncements on everything from painting to poetry to private capital rang among his fans with an almost scriptural authority … Charlotte Brontë claimed that she did not truly perceive visual art until she read Ruskin’s Modern Painters. Ruskin, she said, ‘seems to give me eyes.’ ”
  • When Frederic Tuten met the late Harry Mathews, he was determined to make a good impression—a guaranteed way to ensure the opposite. Witness this portrait of badinage in action: “Although Harry was only six years older than I, he seemed of another time. And he was. He belonged to that fading world of Americans who prized European culture—French especially—and he had gone to live in Paris and had found a home there in a culture that historically favored the unusual, the radical in literature … I felt a kinship with his wish to avoid the traditional, realist narrative of storytelling, and with his turning away from poetry as a manifestation of personality. He was mon semblable—mon frère! I wanted to tell him that … He said, ‘I was hoping to talk to you … I always wondered if I would meet you.’ ‘And I always wondered if I would meet you,’ I answered in stunning repartee.”
  • Frederick Douglass—a man who may still live among us, our president has suggested—was the most photographed person of the nineteenth century. Allison Meier writes of his regard for the camera, which was rooted in a dogged effort to correct the historical record: “Each image, whether daguerreotype or ambrotype, as the medium progressed, was almost identical: Douglass in a suit with a white collar, eyes facing the camera, rarely smiling, with none of the zany Victorian backdrops and tricks that were popular at the time … With every photograph ‘he could present America with an additional image of blackness that contradicted the prevailing racist stereotypes.’ ”