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Mediating Ruskin. An interview with George Landow, Spring 2019

Au prisme de Ruskin : une interview avec George Landow par Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, printemps 2019
Laurence Roussillon-Constanty

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1George Paul Landow is Professor of English and Art History Emeritus at Brown University and a leading authority on Victorian literature, art, and culture, as well as a pioneer in criticism and theory of Electronic literature, hypertext and hypermedia. He also pioneered the use of hypertext and the web in higher education, providing a wealth of resources for scholars all over the world through the foundation of the Victorian Web. The website was originally created in 1987 ‘as a means of helping scholars and students see connections between different fields’. Today, it holds 100,000 documents and images as of 28 May 2019, and it grows every day.

2As first recipient of the newly established Honorary membership to the SFEVE, George Landow has kindly agreed to answer a few questions regarding his academic career and give advice to prospective researchers.

In your own academic career what is the most important thing you’ve learnt through reading Ruskin?

Since I’ve had a long and wandering (and maybe twisted) career that has brought me from literature to art history to computer science and digital culture, I’d have to respond with mentions of several ‘things’. The first thing he taught me was simply how to see. Reading Modern Painters I’s explanations of color, light, and individual natural phenomena, such as leaves and light and shadow on water, I began to understand and feel the difference between looking and actually seeing—that is, seeing the way one does conventionally (e.g., seeing little fluffy clouds) and for oneself (e.g., the many kinds of clouds that are actually up there). Then Ruskin brought me to two very different kinds of painting, that of Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. To understand both Ruskin and later his relation to the PRB, I stumbled into an apparently arcane and unimportant aspect of the way Victorians read the Bible, one result of which was to help me understand Ruskin’s theories of beauty and later his theories of iconographical analysis, both of which majorly informed my first book, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (which I wanted to call ‘These Finer Pleasures’—Ruskin’s own phrase, but Princeton wouldn’t allow that). Far more important, because far more central to my reading, teaching, and research was the discovery—a very Ruskinian one—that (1) most important scholarly discoveries are not like some rare manuscript hidden in a distant castle but just there, lying on the ground, and no one else has noticed; they have looked but not seen. I could go on and on with things I’ve learned from Ruskin, but I’ll end with what his various styles have taught: one must write with different eyes for different goals.

Making connections is one way to think about Ruskin and the Web. What would you say has changed with today’s mode of consumption in I.T.?

If by today, you mean 2019 and 2020, I’d have to say that we have lost the early computer literacy, which included a kind of curiosity that led users to browse. As you know, in the 1990s, a battle raged in computer science between the link and the search tool. With the Web it appeared that the link, which encouraged rich, multi-dimensioned textuality, had won, for as Michael Joyce, who wrote Afternoon, the first hypertext novel, pointed out, ‘Hypertext is the revenge of text upon television’. But with Google and Bing, the search tool established a habit of looking for one thing and immediately leaving a text document, and increasingly the difference between the TV watcher and the web user of YouTube vanished.

As you said, Ruskin is an extraordinarily complex author. Do you think 21st century readers are still able to read his texts and understand their meanings?

Yes, with help and persistence, though of course the most exciting parts of his sage-writing on political economics and his descriptions in Modern Painters are easy to understand without notes or complete knowledge of his allusions to the classics and the Bible.

Don’t you think that we have lost direct address to Ruskin’s writing partly because most people miss the references in his text (Artistic references but also Biblical or mythological references)?

Yes, but once one starts reading Ruskin, such allusions are fairly easy to grasp, particularly if one reads the Library Edition, which identifies the allusions for one.

How to reintroduce the kind of culture required by Ruskin’s writings into a curriculum when culture is so devalued today?

I’d use Ruskin as an opening wedge, introducing students to a range of his works, beginning with a single chapter on seeing from Modern Painters I, say, on vegetation or shadows on water, after which I’d have them read ‘The Nature of Gothic’, and then I’d move to ‘Traffic’. I’d emphasise how some work can stand alone, such as the chapter from Modern Painters, but that even such a text benefits from knowing the situation in which he wrote it. I’d then let that excerpt from The Stones of Venice lead to the many artistic, historical, and political contexts it has and how recognition of each one deepens our understanding and makes the work more powerful. Throughout I’d emphasize how reading, though always pleasurable, is like peeling layers of an onion, revealing more and more as we go.

What texts would you suggest in terms of mediation for someone’s first approach of his writings?

I’d suggest sampling his different kinds of writing from his proto-cinematic word-painting (​authors/​ruskin/​jrwrdpaint.html) to his sage-writing, such as ‘Traffic’ (​authors/​ruskin/​traffic.html) and the first chapter of Unto This Last (​authors/​ruskin/​untothislast/​1.html).

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Laurence Roussillon-Constanty, « Mediating Ruskin. An interview with George Landow, Spring 2019 »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 91 Printemps | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 15 août 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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