Book Project: The Ornamental Novel
Our contemporary view of ornamentation is still shaped by modernist critique. When modernist thinkers cast their eye on decorative Victorian surfaces, they saw a form that was inherently wasteful, meaningless, and essentially undemocratic. Cultural critics such as Adolf Loos and Siegfried Kracauer cast surface decoration as a plague of organic degeneracy upon otherwise immaculate form, which ensnared cognition and produced an unthinking mass culture of consumers. Anticipating the famous words of Ezra Pound, “Make it New,” the American architect Louis Sullivan used his polemic on “Tall Office Buildings” (1896) to call for the removal of Victorian ornament from surfaces, and for a rebirth of clean forms that could be apprehended in a single impression: a style that was “thought-born, as was Minerva, full-grown.” For these thinkers, abandoning ornament was a return to true creativity in art, and a way of restoring the natural liberty of the mind.
But for the Victorians, ornamentation was important precisely because it was inefficient, indirect, and non-parsimonious, which they saw as a rebuttal to the repressive simplifications of industrialism. Rather than conceal signs of labor behind factory doors and mechanical templates, thinkers such as John Ruskin, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde sought instead to recall the individuated and detailed work of craftsmen. These writers felt an imaginative and ethical imperative to inflect visual perception – and reading – with an apprehension requiring labor and mental effort. Difficulty and intricacy were thus central to how these Victorians viewed the creative imagination. The profusions of ornamental embellishments that extend beyond the boundaries of form, the too-apparent incongruity of bric-a-brac objects, and the perceptual momentum generated by following after visual patterns could at least approach the energy of imagining, which the Victorians thought could outpace the economy of attention that was central to factory work. The arguments these critics made therefore placed ornament alongside the novel as the most socially engaged forms of the age: both were sites where social norms were codified and where the relationship between the individual and their world was reimagined. By taking decorative style seriously, The Ornamental Novel saves Victorian ornament from modernist condemnation, while also illustrating how the nineteenth-century aesthetic novel was engaged in an ethical project of reshaping our attention as readers.
"Ornament and Distraction: Peripheral Aesthetics in the Nineteenth Century." Victorian Literature and Culture. 45.2 (2017).
- This essay received the Boston Ruskin Prize, awarded annually to the best essay on the life, work, or interests of John Ruskin
“Apple Pips, Fruit Stains, and Clammy Juice: Nature’s Ornaments and the Aesthetics of Preservation in Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders.” (forthcoming in Nineteenth-Century Literature)
“Giving Way to the World: Distraction and Sociability in Jane Austen’s Persuasion” (forthcoming in Persuasions)
“‘Embracing infinite relations:’ Sensuous Socialism and the Aesthetics of Solidarity in Aurora Leigh” (under preparation)
“Media Crossings: Oscar Wilde and the Ornamental Novel.” NAVSA Conference 2019 (“Media, Genre, and the Generic”). October 2019, Columbus, OH.
“Apple Pips, Fruit Stains, and Clammy Juice: Nature’s Ornaments in Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders.” NAVSA Conference 2018 (“Looking Outward”). October 2018, St. Petersburg, FL (title changed from program).
“Blurring Boundaries: William Morris and the Aesthetics of Diffusion.” MLA Conference 2016 (“William Morris and the Legacy of Socialist Aesthetics”). January 2016, Austin.
“Whim and Whimsical Representation in Victorian Culture.” NAVSA Conference 2015 (“Victorians in the World”) July 2015, Honolulu.
“Scroff, Murder, and other Side Effects in Thomas Hardy’s Novels.” NVSA Conference 2015 (“Victorian Accidents”) April 2015, Providence.
“Essentially Incidental States and Byproducts: Hardy’s Aesthetics of Dust.” International Conference on Narrative. March 2015, Chicago.
“Ornament and ‘Bad Form:’ the Aesthetics of Distraction in the Nineteenth Century.” Victorian Studies Association of Ontario (VSAO) Annual Meeting (“‘Too Little, Too Late;’ Decadence and Incompleteness in the Victorian Era.”) April 2014, Toronto.
“Ornament and ‘Bad Form:’ the Aesthetics of Distraction in the Nineteenth Century.” American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) Annual Meeting (“Small, Finite, and Furnished: Fictional Capital and the Theory of Fictionality”). March 2014, New York.
“Peripheral Attention and Narration.” International Conference on Narrative. March 2014, Massachusetts.
“The Corner of the Eye: Peripheral Attention and Flirtation in Jane Austen's Persuasion”American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) Annual Meeting (“Attention’s Forms”) April 2013, Toronto.