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‘Over-hopefulness and getting-on-ness’: Ruskin, Nature, and America

« Un optimisme à tous crins et les dangers d’une économie de parvenus » : Ruskin, la Nature et l’Amérique
Sara Atwood


Ancré dans une tradition culturelle où se mêlaient littérature, arts et histoire, l’amour inconditionnel que Ruskin portait à la nature (« cette passion qui a gouverné ma vie » (5.365)) était selon lui indissociable d’une identité et d’une culture européennes fortes. Comme il l’affirme dans le volume 3 des Peintres Modernes, cet attachement « ne pouvait être ressenti que par un enfant issu d’une culture européenne contemporaine […] [conscient] du contraste saisissant entre un passé glorieux et un présent tragique ou morne […] cet instinct naturel ne peut guère être ressenti en Amérique et chaque jour où l’on voit l’architecture ou la mode s’embellir ou que l’on renverse la pierre d’un édifice médiéval contribue à l’affaiblir en Europe »’ (5.369). Cette critique ouverte de l’Amérique est loin d’être isolée sous la plume de Ruskin qui, même s’il possédait des amis et des admirateurs américains, ne se rendit jamais aux États-Unis. Comme il le redit dans Fors, il lui « était impossible, même pour quelques mois, de se rendre dans un pays dont le plus grand malheur était d’être dépourvu de châteaux » (27.170). Par ailleurs, Ruskin se méfiait d’un pays qui faisait confiance à la démocratie, ne possédait pas de traditions culturelles historiquement établies et revendiquait au contraire un goût pour la nouveauté. Il doutait de l’optimisme américain qui lui semblait naïf et simpliste. Par contraste, le rapport que Ruskin entretenait avec la nature passait par « un réseau invraisemblable de voies intellectuelles et de ramifications nerveuses le reliant à l’histoire tragique de cette bonne vieille patrie autant que par l’histoire de cette pensée européenne traversant les siècles depuis les temps mythologiques anciens jusqu’au rationalisme et à l’antirationalisme le plus moderne » (36.533). Pour lui, la façon dont les Américains envisageaient la nature impliquait de faire fi du passé et de se libérer de toutes ces valeurs auxquelles il était si attaché, ce que cet article s’attachera à démontrer en comparant les différences entre la vision de la nature nourrie par Ruskin et celle — tout aussi vive — de quelques auteurs naturalistes américains parmi les plus influents : Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, et John Muir.

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  • 1 John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition), 39 vols., ed. E.T.  Cook & Alexander Wedde (...)

1Although he had American friends and admirers and was an important influence upon the development of American art, Ruskin was often critical of America and never visited the United States. As he pronounced witheringly in Fors Clavigera (1871–1884), he ‘could not, even for a couple of months, live in a country so miserable as to possess no castles’ (27.170).1 Ruskin would likely have agreed with Henry James’s account of America’s insufficiencies, which concludes with a Ruskinian sting in the tail:

  • 2 James admired Ruskin’s writing and acknowledged his importance as a critic; he was less impressed b (...)

[O]ne might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American life—especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect of which, upon an English or a French imagination, would probably as a general thing be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his national gift, that ‘American humour’ of which of late years we have heard so much. (James 1879, 43–44)2

2Writing in gadfly mode in Fors Letter 1 (January 1871), he pronounced that he would like ‘to destroy, without rebuilding . . . the city of New York’ (27.15). Ruskin distrusted America’s faith in democracy and was discouraged by its lack of long-established historical and cultural traditions and a corresponding delight in novelty. ‘Do not attempt to learn from America’, he urged in 1877. ‘An Englishman has brains enough to discover for himself what is good for England, and should learn, when he is to be taught anything, from his Fathers, not from his Children’ (34.533). He was wary as well of American optimism, which seemed to him naïve and facile. As he saw it, ‘the Americans, as a nation, set their trust in liberty and in equality, of which I detest the one, and deny the possibility of the other; . . . as a nation, they are wholly undesirous of Rest, and incapable of it; irreverent of themselves, both in the present and in the future; discontented with what they are, yet having no ideal of anything which they desire to become’ (17.432). He considered America to be even more afflicted with mammon-worship than England, and described the American ‘skill of degradation’ (27.216) in discouraging reverence. While his dismissive remarks about America are sometimes leavened with the odd kind admission, he is more often to be found, as he put it ‘going into the Americans as hard as I can go’ (37.46). Writing to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1860, he describes America as a sort of purgatory and though his tone is light, he isn’t really jesting. ‘What a dreadful thing it is that people should have to go to America again, after coming to Europe!’ he declares. ‘It seems to me an inversion of the order of nature. I think America is a sort of “United” States of Probation, out of which all wise people, being once delivered, and having obtained entrance into this better world, should never be expected to return’ (36.337). America was for him too raw, too graspingly eager and uncultured, an upstart crow of a nation lacking the sense to beautify itself, even with borrowed plumage. There was cause for despair, he felt, in the ‘over-hopefulness and getting-on-ness of America; and . . . [its] atmosphere of Calculation’ (36.251).

  • 3 Norton (1827–1908), one of the most prominent figures in nineteenth-century American intellectual a (...)

3Ruskin saw this calculation at work in the terrible American Civil War, his disgust for which left him at odds with his closest American friend, Charles Eliot Norton.3 Ruskin did not see the war as a principled struggle over slavery. Writing Norton in 1863 that ‘It is no use talking about your war’ (36.432), he declared that the ‘miserablest idiocy of the whole has been your mixing up a fight for dominion (the most insolent and tyrannical, and the worst conducted, in all history) with a soi-disant fight for liberty . . . this fight is partly for money, partly for vanity, partly . . . for wild anarchy and the Devil’s cause and crown, everywhere’ (36.433). Ruskin’s remarks about slavery, both with regard to the American War and more generally, require careful analysis. While Ruskin stated his opposition to slavery (and spent his life opposing social injustice), he tended to define the word with a philosophical broadness that disturbs modern readers, equating the ‘slavery’ of poor, white populations oppressed by economic disadvantage and degrading labour conditions with that of black people in the British colonies and America. Ruskin’s emphasis on the historical and cultural meaning of both the word and the practice, rather than the racial and political implications, opens him to charges of insensitivity. Although he declared his desire of ‘obtaining justice, not for black men only, nor for white, but for men of every race and colour’ (18.552), he also expressed the belief ‘that white emancipation not only ought to precede, but must by law of all fate precede, black emancipation’ (18.551). (Frederick Douglass, who championed the rights of women, executed a variation on this theme, angering Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton by declaring that black emancipation must precede the emancipation of women.) While Ruskin’s position is troubling from a 21st century perspective, it was not unusual for the period. Walt Whitman’s view of slavery is similarly contentious. As Martin Klammer points out, Whitman is alternately seen as the champion of inclusive democracy, who ‘consistently includes blacks and other people of color in his vision of an ideal republic’ (2) and a Free Soil advocate who had little sympathy for slaves. In his study of Whitman, slavery, and race—and without absolving Whitman of his failures of judgement—Klammer argues that over time Whitman’s attitude towards slavery evolved, resulting in ‘a radically new and sympathetic poetry about slaves’ (4). Klammer’s book demonstrates the necessity of nuance and context in understanding the often complex, conflicted positions of historical figures.

4Ruskin supported Governor Edward John Eyre in the controversy of 1865, joining the Governor Eyre Defence Fund (established by Thomas Carlyle in 1866) against those who deplored the violent suppression of the insurrection at Morant Bay, Jamaica. Other members of the Defence Fund included Dickens and Tennyson. Ruskin’s remarks about slavery should always be considered in context. His focus on the white working man was dictated by personal experience and firsthand knowledge, and as Stuart Eagles points out, ‘Ruskin placed great emphasis on the value of personal experience as a guide to his principles’ (Eagles 2019). It is also important to keep in mind Ruskin’s habit of exaggerating for rhetorical effect and, as Tim Hilton has noted, the ‘illiberal belligerence [that] often arose from personal irritation, dislike of reformers themselves rather than their causes’ (Hilton 651).

5In 1864, Ruskin sadly told Norton that ‘your American business is so entirely horrible to me that, somehow, it cuts you off from all possibility of my telling you any of my thoughts. It is just as if I saw you washing your hands in blood, and whistling—and sentimentalizing to me. I know you don’t know what you are about, and are just as good and dear as ever you were, but I simply can’t write to you while you are living peaceably in Bedlam’ (36.474). Although his friendship with Norton was not seriously threatened, the war left a strong negative impression, even after it ended in April 1865. In September of that year, Ruskin wrote Norton that ‘the war has put a gulph between all Americans and me in that I do not care to hear what they think, or tell them what I think, on any matter; and Lowell’s work and Longfellow’s is all now quite useless to me’ (36.496).

  • 4 One wonders what Ruskin would have made of Albert Bierstadt, Asher Durand, or the work of the Hudso (...)

6The distaste Ruskin felt for American culture and politics also coloured his attitude towards the landscapes he would never see in person. Having described America as ‘fresh, pure, and very ugly’ (36.251) in an 1856 letter to Norton, Ruskin defended his ‘impertinence’ by instancing some American landscape paintings he had recently seen, which showed ‘that the ugliness of the country must be Unfathomable’ (36.251) and by describing the fruitless efforts of a young American lady to whom he had been giving drawing lessons, whose eyes ‘had been so accustomed to ugliness that she caught at it wherever she could find it’ (36.251), even amidst the most beautiful English scenery. Ruskin claimed that she lacked the English painter’s perception of beauty and interest in nature. Changing tack nearly two decades later, Ruskin suggested that perhaps the fault lay with American painters, rather than American landscape, concluding that ‘[T]here are crude efforts at landscape-painting, made continually upon the most splendid physical phenomena, in America, and other countries without any history. It is not of the slightest use’ (22.15).4

7In a letter of August 1869, Ruskin gave Norton an account of two American girls, encountered on a train journey to Verona, who apparently lacked any perception of the natural world. Privileged and bored, fidgeting uncomfortably and snacking abstractedly, the girls failed even to notice the beautiful landscape outside the carriage window. Their amusements—battered French novels and sweets—were vulgar and their limited conversation trivial. Ruskin saw their enervation and vacuity as the inevitable result of a culture that valued freedom over wise restraint. In his letter to Norton, Ruskin used the story to take a jab at America. ‘I never yet saw humanity so degraded’, he declared, ‘(allowing for external circumstances of every possible advantage.) Given wealth, attainable education, and the inheritance of eighteen centuries of Christianity and ten of noble Paganism, and this is your result—by means of “Liberty”’ (29.577–78). Three years later, Ruskin returned to the American travellers in Fors Clavigera Letter 20 (August 1872) to make a broader point about contemporary western society. Contrasting the ‘accursed’ and ‘blessed’ states of life, Ruskin illustrated the former with an account of these young women. ‘By infinite self-indulgence’, Ruskin tells us, ‘they had reduced themselves simply to two pieces of white putty that could feel pain’ (27.345–46). Self-indulgence and stupidity had effectively blinded them to the beauty of the landscape.

  • 5 An 1860 remark of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gives unwitting support to Ruskin’s judgement. ‘No author’, (...)

8Ruskin’s own profound love of nature, rooted in close observation of and interaction with the natural world, was strengthened by literary, artistic, and historical associations uniquely connected to the European cultural tradition. His understanding of history was informed by the long ages of Europe, which fed his strong sense of place; the landscapes he loved were rich with meaning and memory. ‘Our children’s taste’, he explained to American artist W. J. Stillman in 1851, ‘is fed with ruins of Abbeys’ (36.125). Such associations, he proposed in Modern Painters 3 ‘can be felt only by the modern European child . . . [rising] eminently out of the contrast of the beautiful past with the frightful and monotonous present . . . The instinct to which it appeals can hardly be felt in America, and every day that either beautifies our present architecture and dress, or overthrows a stone of medieval monument, contributes to weaken it in Europe’ (5.369).5 Ruskin’s understanding of the natural world was connected by ‘all manner of strange intellectual chords and nerves with the pathos and history of this old English country of ours; and on the other side, with the history of the European mind from earliest mythology down to modern rationalism and ir-rationalism’ (36.533). The American vision of nature lacked the elements that Ruskin most valued. In an 1875 letter to Norton, Ruskin wrote that ‘You cannot have in America the forms of mental rest soothed with memory of other, far distant, sorrow, not our own, which is so beautiful in these old countries. How different for a man like you, a walk by our riversides under Bolton or Furness, or in cloister of Vallombrosa or Chartreuse, from any blank cessation from absolute toil in that new land!’ (37.185). Given Ruskin’s attitude towards America and his intensely personal and cultural understanding of nature, it is unsurprising that there should be fundamental and important differences between his perception of the natural world and that of such influential contemporary Americans as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, despite a shared love of nature and sense of its spiritual power.

9Nineteenth-century Americans were torn between the need to construct a culture of their own and the venerable European tradition. As a young country still trying to define itself, America lacked Europe’s confidence. Perhaps the most incisive contemporary account of America’s cultural insecurity is found in Henry James’s 1879 study of Nathaniel Hawthorne. James, who himself succumbed to the ‘centripetal pull’ (Van Doren 165) of Europe, observed that in America ‘newness, change and brevity of tenure are the common substance of life’ (James 1879, 14). Americans, he declared:

are, as Americans, the most self-conscious people in the world, and the most addicted to the belief that the other nations of the earth are in a conspiracy to undervalue them. They are conscious of being the youngest of the great nations, of not being of the European family, of being placed on the circumference of the circle of civilisation rather than at the centre, of the experimental element not having as yet entirely dropped out of their great political undertaking. The sense of this relativity, in a word, replaces that quiet and comfortable sense of the absolute, as regards its own position in the world, which reigns supreme in the British and in the Gallic genius. (James 1879, 153–54)

  • 6 For James, Thoreau embodied these twin American weaknesses. As he wrote in Hawthorne: ‘Whatever que (...)

10Nor was James, an expatriate who repeatedly returned in his novels to the ‘the discovery of Europe by the American abroad’ (Stein 212), immune to American self-doubt. Something of the insecurity James describes underlies Emerson’s bold calls for self-reliance and a uniquely American tradition. In his first published book, Nature (1836), Emerson asks ‘why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? . . . There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship’ (Emerson 1971, 7). He urged readers to overcome their cultural unease: ‘our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close . . .’ he declared in The American Scholar, ‘We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American free-man is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame’ (Emerson 1971, 49; 70). Although it has often been misrepresented as such, this is not an argument for American exceptionalism; Emerson never shrank from identifying national failings. His resistance to European cultural dominance was rooted in a cultural anxiety of influence that persists, to a surprising degree, today. Noting in 2018 that the American ‘sense of deficiency is at least as strong as ever’ (Robinson 146), novelist Marilynne Robinson argued that ‘it is absurd that the products of a civilization as old and solid as [America’s] should forever be such colonials, feeling sophisticated in the fact that they have and confess such deeply internalized prejudices against themselves’ (146). Terry Eagleton’s observation in a 2019 essay that ‘the US is a deeply parochial society’ (7) recalls, over a century later, James’s description of ‘the intensely provincial’ (29) tone of American society.6

  • 7 See also Sara Atwood, ‘Black Devil and Gentle Cloud: Ruskin and Emerson at Odds’. Nineteenth-Centur (...)

11‘My whole philosophy’, Emerson declared in 1841, ‘which is very real, teaches acquiescence and optimism. Sure I am that the right word will be spoken, though I cut out my tongue’ (Emerson 1997, 257). Emerson’s optimism sprang from America’s newness and his sense of its potential. In English Traits, he remarks that for all the sense, spirit and success of the English, ‘I surely know that, as soon as I return to Massachusetts, I shall lapse at once into the feeling, which the geography of America inevitably inspires, that we play the game with immense advantage . . . and that England, an old and exhausted island, must one day be contented, like other parents, to be strong only in her children’ (Emerson 1994, 155). James would later describe Hawthorne’s similar, though less brilliant, response to Europe as that of ‘an intense American’ looking at things ‘from the standpoint of that little clod of western earth which he carried about with him as the good Mohammedan carries the strip of carpet on which he kneels down to face towards Mecca’ (James 1879, 171). Although Emerson recognized the damaging effects of industrialism and capitalism on the natural world, he believed that wisdom would ultimately prevail. His study of nature led him to conclude that ‘every stone will fall where it is due . . . we need not assist the administration of the universe’ (Emerson 1984, 166). Emerson’s optimism shaped his doctrine of compensation, according to which ‘Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life . . . Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty’ (Emerson 1980, 60). Ruskin was not without hope, but Emersonian optimism seemed to him ingenuous. ‘I fancy Emerson’s essay on Compensation must have been written when he was very comfortable’ (36.511), Ruskin remarked in 1866. For Emerson, nature was more symbolic than particular: ‘Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact’ (Emerson 1971, 18) he intoned. R. B. Stein points out that ‘although Ruskin used the transcendental argument to make nature more meaningful, he did not see nature as symbolic in the sense that Emerson . . . did. Nature for Ruskin was metaphorical or allegorical, rather than the basis for a symbolic vision’ (Stein 38). It was also immediate and particular; throughout his life and his work, Ruskin paid close attention to the natural world in all its detail and materiality.7

  • 8 One wonders if Thoreau, who died in 1862, would have understood Ruskin better had he lived long eno (...)

12Ruskin’s thinking was similarly at odds with that of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, the American high priests of nature (although Muir was Scottish by birth he lived all his adult life in America, becoming one of the country’s most famous naturalists and conservationists). Thoreau read all five volumes of Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Elements of Drawing and was ‘greatly stirred by Ruskin’ (Richardson 358). Thoreau was drawn to Ruskin’s passion for and close observation of nature, his powerful prose, and prophetic voice. He was impressed by Ruskin’s discussion of colour in The Elements of Drawing. Robert D. Richardson observes Ruskin’s influence in Thoreau’s 1857 essay ‘Autumnal Tints’, noting that ‘in its emphasis on seeing, its attention to visual detail, and above all in its excitement and revelling in colour, the essay owed much of its brilliance to Thoreau’s excited reading of Ruskin’ (Richardson 360). Laura Dassow Walls agrees, remarking that ‘Ruskin showed [Thoreau] how to see autumn through an artist’s eye’ (Walls 426). Thoreau was especially taken with Ruskin’s concept of the ‘innocent eye’, a way of seeing things ‘without consciousness of what they signify’ (Ruskin 15.27). Yet he was critical of what he considered Ruskin’s contradictory practice of viewing nature through a cultural lens, with ‘an artist’s and critic’s design’ (Thoreau 1906, 69). Too often, Thoreau felt, ‘Ruskin wanted to see Nature through Art’ (Walls 426). As H. Daniel Peck observes, this judgement ‘is enormously unfair to Ruskin, whose search for Nature’s meaning—especially its “symmetry”—was in many respects as deeply probing as Thoreau’s’ (Peck 65) (some of us might say it was more probing). For Ruskin, the concept of the ‘innocent eye’, relates to the technical power of painting; it is a part, not the sum, of full perception. As Ruskin makes clear, ‘in the mind of the man who has most the power of contemplating the thing itself, all . . . perceptions and trains of idea are partially present, not distinctly, but in a mingled and perfect harmony . . . fancy, and feeling, and perception, and imagination, will all obscurely meet and balance themselves in him’ (5.358). As Ruskin put it in a now-famous declaration, ‘To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,—all in one’ (5.333). Thoreau, like Muir after him, misunderstood Ruskin’s feeling for nature. Put off by Ruskin’s mingling of nature and religion in Modern Painters, Thoreau failed to see that Ruskin’s passion for the natural world was just as strong as his own, though of a different character.8 In a journal entry of 29 October, 1857, Thoreau recorded that

After reading Ruskin on the love of Nature, I think, ‘Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring’. He there, to my surprise, expresses the common infidelity of his age and race. He has not implicitly surrendered himself to her. And what does he substitute for that Nature? I do not know, unless it be the Church of England. Questioning whether that relation to Nature was of so much value, after all! It is sour grapes! He does not speak to the condition of foxes that have more spring in their legs. The love of Nature and fullest perception of the revelation which she is to man is not compatible with the belief in the peculiar revelation of the Bible which Ruskin entertains. (Thoreau 1906, 147)

13As Ruskin was beginning to glimpse darkness in the natural world—an awareness of ecological degradation that would result in the apocalyptic vision of The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century in 1884—Thoreau was composing paeans to American wildness in the 1862 essay ‘Walking’. According nature an almost salvific power, Thoreau famously declares that ‘in Wildness is the preservation of the world’ (Thoreau 1993, 61). Thoreau’s essay is a statement of faith: ‘I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows’ (Thoreau 1993, 61) he proclaims, echoing the credal formula. As James pointed out, Thoreau’s generation ‘witnessed during a period of fifty years the immense, uninterrupted material development of the young Republic’ (James 1879, 141):

and when one thinks of the scale on which it took place, of the prosperity that walked in its train and waited on its course, of the hopes it fostered and the blessings it conferred, of the broad morning sunshine, in a word, in which it all went forward, there seems to be little room for surprise that it should have implanted a kind of superstitious faith in the grandeur of the country, its duration, its immunity from the usual troubles of earthly empires. This faith was a simple and uncritical one, enlivened with an element of genial optimism, in the light of which it appeared that the great American state was not as other human institutions are, that a special Providence watched over it, that it would go on joyously for ever, and that a country whose vast and blooming bosom offered a refuge to the strugglers and seekers of all the rest of the world, must come off easily, in the battle of the ages. (James 1879, 142)

14‘Walking’ is also a celebration of America’s freedom from tradition (although Thoreau’s insistence on the enervation of European culture suggests a distinctly American fear of inferiority). For Thoreau, the future lies to the west. ‘The Atlantic is a Lethean stream’, he writes, ‘in our passage over which we have had an opportunity to forget the Old World and its institutions’ (Thoreau 1993, 57). English literature in particular, he argues, is as tame and staid as the English landscape, lacking the ‘wild strain’ (Thoreau 1993, 65) encouraged by America’s vastness and to be superseded one day by vigorous American creativity. While conceding the enduring power of myth—‘the crop which the Old World bore before its soil was exhausted’ (Thoreau 1993, 65)—Thoreau believes that in the future an ‘American mythology’ (Thoreau 1993, 65) will provide a fresh source of inspiration. Everything is bigger, brighter, wilder, and more inspiring in America, Thoreau enthuses:

If the heavens of America appear infinitely higher, and the stars brighter, I trust these facts are symbolical of the height to which the philosophy and poetry and religion of her inhabitants may one day soar. . . . For I believe that climate does thus react on man . . . Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these circumstances? Or is it unimportant how many foggy days there are in his life? I trust that we shall be more imaginative, that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher, and more ethereal, as our sky,—our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains,—our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests,—and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas’. (Thoreau 1993, 59–60)

15This vision of nature depends on leaving the past behind, shedding the very influences that shaped Ruskin’s understanding of the natural world. Whereas Ruskin identified ‘the want of historical associations’ (36.125) as a particularly American deficiency, Thoreau declared that ‘He is blessed over all mortals, who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past’ (Thoreau 1993, 73). As Dominic Green points out, Ruskin ‘could look back to the medieval unities and ‘The Nature of Gothic,’ Thoreau had only the Neolithic past of Indian arrowheads and the speaking cosmos, and the “quiet desperation” of a . . . revolutionary’ (Green 2017). Nor does Thoreau acknowledge the dark side of nature that troubled Ruskin. In the east, Thoreau writes, ‘fancy and imagination [are] affected with blight’ (Thoreau 1993, 65), but westward lies the Holy Land, where ‘one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done . . . and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light’ (Thoreau 1993, 74).

16John Muir, too, objected to Ruskin’s account of darkness in nature. Reading Modern Painters in the 1870s, Muir wrote to a friend: ‘How cordially I disbelieve him tonight, and were he to dwell awhile amongst the powers of these mountains he would forget all dictionary differences betwixt the clean and the unclean, and he would lose all memory and meaning of the diabolical, sin-begotten term foulness’ (qtd. Worster 187). Of course, Ruskin had dwelt amongst the mountains and the powerful contrast he drew between ‘Mountain Gloom’ and ‘Mountain Glory’ was the result of close observation. For all his love of the natural world and conviction of its divinely-influenced beauty, Ruskin warned against a naively sentimental view of nature:

in the utmost solitudes of nature, [he wrote] the existence of Hell seems to me as legibly declared by a thousand spiritual utterances, as that of Heaven. It is well for us to dwell with thankfulness of the unfolding of the flower, and the falling of the dew, and the sleep of the green fields in the sunshine; but the blasted trunk, the barren rock, the moaning of the bleak winds, the roar of the black, perilous, merciless whirlpools of the mountain streams, the solemn solitudes of moors and seas, the continual fading of all beauty into darkness, and of all strength into dust, have these no language for us? We may seek to escape their teaching by reasoning touching the good which is wrought out of all evil; but it is vain sophistry. The good succeeds to the evil as day succeeds the night, but so also the evil to the good (11.164–65).

  • 9 James remarked that ‘Transcendentalism could only have sprouted in the soil peculiar to the general (...)

17Muir would have none of it. Responding to this passage in an 1873 letter to J. B. McChesney, he declared: ‘I know something about “the blasted trunk, and the barren rock, the moaning of the bleak winds . . .” and they have a language for me, but they declare nothing of wrath or of hell, only Love plain as was ever spoken’ (Gifford 1996, 187). Muir saw only the ‘ineffable beauty and harmony’ (Muir 1997a, 465) of nature; for him, even the most destructive of storms was productive of a ‘glorious perfection’ that revealed Nature’s essential goodness and wisdom (Muir 1997a, 465). For Muir, the ‘grand throb of Nature’s heart’ told of ‘divine wisdom and goodness and immortality’ (Muir 1997b, 293–94). Like Ruskin, Muir was a keen observer of the natural world. Both men believed in an essential bond between man and nature and were distressed to see it weakened by the pressure of economic and cultural change. It is likely that Ruskin, who had protested the expansion of the railway into his beloved Lake District and the conversion of Thirlmere into a reservoir, would have approved Muir’s conservation efforts (there are especially close parallels between Ruskin’s failed efforts on behalf of Thirlmere and Muir’s lost battle for Yosemite’s Hetch-Hetchy Valley). But Muir, a great admirer of both Emerson and Thoreau, found their transcendental philosophy more sympathetic.9

18In the same letter to McChesney, Muir praised Ruskin’s ‘steel-tempered sentences’ (Muir 1996, 186), but once again criticized what he saw as Ruskin’s hopelessness and his emphasis on the dualities of nature: good and evil, dark and light, life and death (Muir failed to see that Ruskin’s use of linguistic dualisms does not mean that his vision is dualist). Astonishingly, Muir declares Ruskin ‘an infidel to Nature. You can never feel that there is the slightest union betwixt Nature and him’ (Muir 1996, 187). Ruskin lives, Muir insists, beneath a bell-glass, his vision occluded by ‘the heaviest and most opaque stuff in the universe—a thousand times denser than hammered steel’ (Muir 1996, 187). There is a good deal more in this vein and one wonders at Muir’s apparent inability—or refusal—to understand Ruskin’s meaning. Terry Gifford cautions against an uncritical acceptance of Muir’s strictures, suggesting that Muir may have learned from Ruskin the ‘multiple modes of discourse that enabled him to move between lyrical descriptive prose, scientific inquiry, and angry preaching’ as well as a concern for the environment and human life (Gifford 2006, 75). Gifford argues that Muir’s resistance to aspects of Ruskin’s language has ‘clouded Muir’s ability to see the whole of what Ruskin is saying, with which he would have some sympathy’, with the result that ‘Muir’s is not a reading of Ruskin at all’, but a misreading (Gifford 2006, 79). After 1886, Gifford maintains, Muir used Ruskin to more clearly define his own thinking, ‘seeking not only to learn from Ruskin, but to forge his own vision’ (Gifford 2006, 83), at the same time distancing himself from Ruskin’s example in what might be interpreted as another instance of cultural (and intellectual) anxiety.

19Among those Americans who studied and wrote about nature, Ruskin has more in common with George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature (1864) is an attempt to study the harmful effects of human impact on the natural world and to encourage wise future practice. Marsh’s pragmatism contrasts with the traditional American glorification of wildness. Ruskin owned a copy of Man and Nature and although he does not comment on it in his own work one expects that he must have found appealing Marsh’s blend of scientific and cultural knowledge, his commitment to close observation and his rejection of narrow specialization. (While Ruskin read several of Emerson’s books, heard news of him through their mutual friend Carlyle, and met him on one occasion in 1873, Ruskin does not mention Thoreau or Muir and does not appear to have owned any of their books). Marsh’s tone and style are quite different from Ruskin’s and his book is systematic and data-driven, but he nonetheless shares Ruskin’s vision of connection and relation and repeatedly links nature, culture, science and history. He also expresses a Ruskinian belief in the power of sight, declaring that ‘the power most important to cultivate, and, at the same time, hardest to acquire, is that of seeing what is before him. Sight is a faculty; seeing, an art’ (Marsh 15). Although known and respected amongst academics, conservationists, and environmentalists, neither Marsh nor his practical, sober work attained the popular fame accorded to Emerson’s oracular mysticism, or to the visionary spirituality of Thoreau and Muir.

20Concerned to establish a uniquely American story and tradition, Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir interpreted nature’s signs differently than Ruskin, who read what he called the ‘living hieroglyph’ (19.361) of nature through a lens of history, culture, and experience. Despite many apparent correspondences and points of sympathy with these Americans, Ruskin’s ideas had been forged in a different fire and bore the marks of its distinctive tempering.

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Eagleton, Terry. ‘Against the “wokescenti”’. Times Literary Supplement. 29 November 2019. 7.

Eguchi, Tomoko. Ethical Aestheticism in the Works of Henry James: The Shadow of John Ruskin. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Joel Meyers. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. ‘English Traits’. Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 5. Ed. Philip Nicoloff, Robert E. Burkholder, Douglas Emory Wilson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. ‘New England Reformers’. Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 3. Ed. Joseph Slater, Alfred R. Ferguson, Jean Ferguson Carr. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. ‘Compensation’. Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 2. Eds. Joseph Slater, Alfred R. Ferguson, Jean Ferguson Carr. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. ‘Nature’. Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 1. Eds. Robert E. Spiller, Alfred R. Ferguson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971.

Gifford, Terry. Reconnecting with John Muir: Essays in Post-Pastoral Practice. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2006.

Green, Dominic. ‘The Two Sides of Henry David Thoreau’. The Spectator Accessed 10 January 2019.

Hilton, Tim. John Ruskin: The Later Years. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002.

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1 John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition), 39 vols., ed. E.T.  Cook & Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903–1912), 35.219. Subsequent references are to this edition.

2 James admired Ruskin’s writing and acknowledged his importance as a critic; he was less impressed by his character. The two have been studied productively together by Tomoko Eguchi, Viola Hopkins Winner, Cynthia Gamble, and others. Hopkins Winner points out that ‘Ruskin served as James’s cicerone to north Italy through Murray’s guidebook . . . and to Venice through The Stones of Venice’ (19). James was introduced to Ruskin in 1869 by mutual friend Charles Eliot Norton, attended Ruskin’s lecture on Greek mythology in March of that year, and dined at Ruskin’s home at Denmark Hill a few weeks later. In a subsequent letter to his mother, James wrote: ‘Ruskin himself is a very simple matter. In face, in manner, in mind, he is weakness pure and simple. I use the word, not invidiously, but scientifically. He has the beauties of his defects; but to see him only confirms the impression given by his writing, that he has been scared back by the grim face of reality into a world of unreason and illusion, and that he wanders there without a compass and a guide—or any light save the fitful flashes of his beautiful genius’ (James 1920, 1.20). It is worth noting that James was 26 years old when he wrote this self-consciously eloquent assessment—and perhaps eager to express the sort of sophisticated cultural awareness he had gone to Europe to cultivate. Eguchi observes that ‘Despite his accusation of Ruskin’s escape from reality, James’s aesthetic ideas about reality and imagination significantly parallel those of Ruskin’ (Eguchi 16). As time passed, James grew increasingly critical of Ruskin’s critical practice as well. Recounting the disastrous Ruskin-Whistler trial in The Nation, December 19, 1878, James remarked that ‘Mr. Ruskin’s language quite transgresses the decencies of criticism, and he has been laying about him for some time with such promiscuous violence that it gratifies one’s sense of justice to see him brought up as a disorderly character. On the other hand, he is a chartered libertine—he has possessed himself by prescription of the function of a general scold’. One might say, with a nod to Eguchi, that despite his accusation of Ruskin’s critical violence, James was equally capable of laying about him, with evident pleasure. Detailed consideration of Ruskin and James, however, falls outside the scope of the present essay.

3 Norton (1827–1908), one of the most prominent figures in nineteenth-century American intellectual and cultural circles, was an author, editor and critic. He was the first professor of art history at Harvard University, a chair created for him, which he held from 1875–1898. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a founding member and first president of the Archaelogical Institute of America (AIA). After Ruskin’s death in 1900, Norton was appointed his literary executor.

4 One wonders what Ruskin would have made of Albert Bierstadt, Asher Durand, or the work of the Hudson River School more broadly. He was familiar with at least some of the paintings of Frederic Edwin Church and met Sanford Robinson Gifford when the American was travelling in Italy. Of Church’s Cotopaxi (1857), Ruskin wrote Charles Eliot Norton in 1865 that ‘He can draw clouds as few men can, though he does not know yet what painting means, and I suppose never will, but he has a great gift of his own’ (36.495). In his 1871 Lectures on Landscape (as the newspaper account reported it), Ruskin said of an American painter, thought to be Church: ‘he may be a skilful imitator of nature, but . . . is not in the true sense a landscape-painter’ (22.15).

5 An 1860 remark of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gives unwitting support to Ruskin’s judgement. ‘No author’, Hawthorne wrote, ‘without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land’ (qtd. in James 1879, 42).

6 For James, Thoreau embodied these twin American weaknesses. As he wrote in Hawthorne: ‘Whatever question there may be of [Thoreau’s] talent, there can be none, I think, of his genius. It was a slim and crooked one; but it was eminently personal. He was imperfect, unfinished, inartistic; he was worse than provincial—he was parochial; it is only at his best that he is readable. But at his best he has an extreme natural charm’ (James 1879, 96–97; emphasis added).

7 See also Sara Atwood, ‘Black Devil and Gentle Cloud: Ruskin and Emerson at Odds’. Nineteenth-Century Prose 40. 2 (Fall 2013). 129–62.

8 One wonders if Thoreau, who died in 1862, would have understood Ruskin better had he lived long enough to read his later work.

9 James remarked that ‘Transcendentalism could only have sprouted in the soil peculiar to the general locality of which I speak—the soil of the old New England morality, gently raked and refreshed by an imported culture. The Transcendentalists read a great deal of French and German, made themselves intimate with George Sand and Goethe, and many other writers; but the strong and deep New England conscience accompanied them on all their intellectual excursions, and there never was a so-called “movement” that embodied itself, on the whole, in fewer eccentricities of conduct, or that borrowed a smaller licence [sic] in private deportment’ (James 1879, 82). The Transcendental movement, according to James, ‘had suffered in the estimation of the world at large from not having (putting Emerson aside) produced any superior talents’ (James 1879, 96).

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Sara Atwood, « ‘Over-hopefulness and getting-on-ness’: Ruskin, Nature, and America »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 91 Printemps | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 10 juillet 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Sara Atwood

Sara Atwood’s work has appeared in The Ruskin Review and Bulletin, Nineteenth-Century Prose, The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, and Carlyle Studies Annual. Her book, Ruskin’s Educational Ideals, was published by Ashgate in 2011. She is a contributor to the Yale University Press edition of Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (2013), Teaching Victorian Literature in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave 2017) John Ruskin and Nineteenth-Century Education (Anthem 2018), and Victorian Environmental Nightmares (Palgrave 2019). She has lectured widely on Ruskin, focusing particularly on education, the environment, and language. She is a Companion of the Guild of St. George and editor of its annual journal, The Companion. Dr. Atwood teaches English literature at Portland State University and writing at Portland Community College.
Sara Atwood a publié plusieurs articles sur Ruskin dans The Ruskin Review and Bulletin, Nineteenth-Century Prose, The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, et Carlyle Studies Annual et elle est l’auteure d’un ouvrage intitulé Ruskin’s Educational Ideals (Ashgate), paru en 2011. Elle a également contribué aux ouvrages suivants : On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (Yale University Press 2013), Teaching Victorian Literature in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave 2017) John Ruskin and Nineteenth-Century Education (Anthem 2018), et Victorian Environmental Nightmares (Palgrave 2019). Elle fait régulièrement des conférences sur Ruskin et s’intéresse plus particulièrement à la question de l’éducation, de l’environnement et de la prose. Elle est « Companion » de la Guild de Saint George et rédactrice en chef de la revue annuelle liée à l’association, The Companion. Dr. Atwood enseigne la littérature anglaise à Portland State University et l’expression écrite à Portland Community College.

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