Richard Altick

Richard Altick, who died in 2008, taught for many years at Ohio State University. He wrote more than forty books, mainly on the Victorian period, including The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800-1900.


Richard Altick, 29 October 1987

Whether by happy accident or design, the publication of Peter Jackson’s George Scharf’s London coincided with the opening of a notable exhibition at the Museum of London called simply ‘Londoners’. Although Scharf’s oeuvre is most readily classified as topographical art, his sketches are as descriptive of the everyday Londoners who went about their lawful pursuits in the decades between 1820 and 1850 as they are of sides of the emerging metropolis which down to that time were largely neglected by the best-known London iconographers. Canaletto’s scores of panoramic scenes with their minutely sharp lines and Venetian brightness constitute an 18th-century version of London which it is hard to believe existed in all its radiant immaculacy. Hogarth’s London scenes foreshadowed Doré’s, more than a century later, in their depiction of a dark purgatory peopled with prostitutes, pimps, rakes, gin-drinkers, beggars and all the other members of a seamy or downright criminal underclass. The most ample previously known visual accounts of the late Regency and early Victorian London that Scharf knew were left by artists, notably Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and Thomas Shotter Boys, whose eyes were fixed on the city’s architectural splendours, old and new. As with Canaletto’s paintings, one has the feeling that Shepherd and Boys ignored the people normally present in the vicinity and subsequently introduced a few scattered figures as an afterthought, an unconvincing affectation of realism that was not allowed to distract attention from the buildings themselves.

Possibility throbs

Richard Altick, 23 July 1987

By 1828, the courtyard of the Palais-Royal in Paris, once a fashionable bazaar, had degenerated into the commercial slum Balzac would later describe in Les Illusions Perdues: three rows of badly lit and leaky shops and sheds, the squalid premises of trades-persons ranging from booksellers to prostitutes. At that moment, the landowner, the Duc d’Orléans, decided to restore the valuable property to its former use by pulling down the ramshackle structures and erecting in their stead a pair of shining, spacious arcades with iron frameworks and roofs and walls of glass. London’s Burlington Arcade, opened a dozen years earlier, was the partial model for the new Galerie d’Orléans, but this enterprise was far to outdo it in innovative boldness and size.

All in pawn

Richard Altick, 19 June 1986

Of the thousands of men and women whose pens turned words into (someone’s) wealth in 19th-century England, only a few are remembered today – the novelists, poets and essayists preserved in the amber of literary histories, reprint series and school syllabi. Not that these writers were necessarily the superstars of their own day. Some of them were, but the majority of the authors who were most widely read and respected by their contemporaries have all but disappeared from critical view. Often assisted by income from other professions or from inheritances, some made good livings. At a great economic and social distance from them were the wretched hacks who sought to keep starvation at bay by composing doggerel advertisements for E. Moses and Sons’ ready-made clothing and Warren’s boot blacking, and their equally shabby colleagues who ground out urban ballads, sensational broadsides and last dying speeches of executed criminals for the street trade described in the pages of Henry Mayhew.’

Behind the Veil

Richard Altick, 6 March 1986

The need was pressing, and the answer promptly came, trailing clouds of ectoplasm. Tennyson’s In Memoriam, an instant best-seller in 1850, won him the laureateship largely because its long sequence of troubled, plaintive lyrics, written over a span of 17 years, told a story and described a situation that struck home to countless readers: the sudden death of a beloved friend and the questions it raised about the immortality of the soul and the possibility of spiritual communion now and physical reunion in the hereafter. ‘O for thy voice to soothe and bless!’ cried Tennyson, addressing the deceased Arthur Hallam. ‘What hope of answer, or redress? Behind the veil, behind the veil.’


Richard Altick, 19 July 1984

Most conscientious biographers are aware of their subjects’ shades vigilantly or solicitously hovering over their shoulders as they write. The biographer of Thomas Carlyle is supervised more severely than most: the irritable, brooding Scotsman, the would-be redeemer, and, failing that, the scourge of Victorian England, seems to breathe flame down his neck. To write about Carlyle with both authority and imagination is a daunting enterprise. For one thing, Dr Johnson apart, no English man of letters has ever held a higher opinion of the dignity of biography as a literary form, or inferentially expected more from its practitioners. Carlyle’s most famous dictum, ‘History is the essence of innumerable biographies,’ may have been meant only metaphorically, but another is specific enough: ‘Biography is by nature the most universally profitable, universally pleasant of all things: especially biography of distinguished individuals.’

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