"When I consider the quantity of wise talking which has passed in at one long ear of the world, and out at the other, without making the smallest impression upon its mind, I am tempted for the rest of my life to try and do what seems to me rational, silently; and to speak no more."
--Ruskin in Fors Clavigera (27:353)
Ruskin did, however, speak voluminously throughout the late nineteenth century in opposition to the abstract theoretical musings of the day. His Fors Clavigera--a collection of monthly letters published over thirteen years--offered his readers a model of critical discourse as a living, material process.
In Ruskin's Culture Wars, Judith Stoddart provides the first sustained modern critical reading of Fors Clavigera, placing this classic work in the context of its Victorian contemporaries: art journals, liberal and working-class periodicals, and popular criticism. In re-creating the intellectual climate, she demonstrates the sense of cultural crisis and change evident at the time.
Rebelling against the tendency to treat Ruskin's letters as the prose lyric of a damaged psyche, Stoddart shows how the cumulative text of Fors Clavigera not only records but revises and redirects the preoccupations of his period. He was an integral part of Victorian discussions of literary tradition and of the roles of democracy and nationality in late-nineteenth-century Europe. Ruskin's Culture Wars offers a valuable case study in Victorian public discourse that contributes to ongoing debates in our own century about the relations between language and history, text and context.
Working centrifugally from Fors Clavigera, Stoddart examines Romantic authority and radical individualism, nationalism, historicism, and canon formation. Whereas earlier critics have avoided or dismissed Fors as too infelicitous, Stoddart sets these very idiosyncrasies in larger intellectual and political contexts. She is perceptive in showing how prevailing assumptions, not only about the self but about critical authority, continue to affect general understanding of these letters.
Judith Stoddart, in Ruskin’s Culture Wars: "Fors Clavigera" and the Crisis of Victorian Liberalism, also explores the politics of form, setting John Ruskin’s idiosyncratic periodical in the context of critical debate in the 1870s... Situating Fors in the tradition of epistolaryperiodicals by Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and William Cobbett, Stoddart shows how Ruskin developed a contingent, but not disinterested, subject position, and adopted a positivist historical method only to subvert it.