Research Notes · 05/08/2015

The Guild of Saint Cooper

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Shya Scanlon writes about The Guild of Saint Cooper from Dzanc Books.

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The way a book forms for me is a process of gradual accretion of distinct ideas or interests that ultimately converge in a way that compels me to write. That doesn’t mean they always gel in an organic way, but that they cause some kind of potent friction. “Research” to me usually connotes reading (or interviews, etc.) directed by a pre-chosen subject matter. But once my subjects — though the word is perhaps too strong — have gathered enough steam to produce artistic momentum, the “subject” becomes the book itself, and I leave research largely behind.

For Guild, the first point of interest for me occurred while I was reading Tim Hilton’s two-volume biography of the Victorian writer and art critic John Ruskin. Outside of certain academic circles, he’s probably best known for his role in the arts and crafts movement, his defense of Turner’s late period, his patronage of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and also for his unrequited love for Rose La Touche, whose adult crotch — though there is difference of opinion about this — seems to have been an unpleasant surprise to this man’s naïve romantic expectations.

I found this guy super interesting, but I didn’t know he’d become fodder for my work until I read about a project he started later in life, as he began to put ideas he’d been developing in the aesthetic realm into a more practical sphere of social engineering. Ruskin had always been drawn to gothic architecture, and one of the things he found fascinating about it was that it relied so heavily on the influence and interpretation of the craftspeople who enacted the broad concepts of its architects. Put plainly, there was a lot of room for improvisation and personal expression. He began to look at these enormous projects (cathedrals) from the viewpoint of the builders and artisans, and his interests began to bend toward the social aspect of art.

Ruskin was an aesthete and prose stylist, but he was also a systematic thinker, and as his interest in art production evolved, he became more critical of social inequality and the question of who controlled the means of production. He was very critical of modern, free-market capitalism, which he considered alienating and dehumanizing, and envisioned a kind of utopia where all people had some control over production, and were equitably paid for their labor. To this end, he created — and this was the spark for me — an organization called the Guild of St George. As both a recruitment tool and a platform to articulate his utopian vision, Ruskin published a series of pamphlets called Fors Clavigera, which were sold (it was important to Ruskin that workers pay for knowledge — this was not a charity, per se, it was a method of empowerment and self-sufficiency) to the working class, and which contained all kinds of information he thought people would find helpful, such as lessons in microeconomics.

Thing is, it’s practically unreadable except as a kind of highly idiosyncratic literature. It’s bleakly hilarious to imagine an exhausted, questionably literate factory worker unwinding after a ten-hour day smelting iron or something with an issue of this dense, ornate, meandering text. Ironically, the Guild got by largely on donations from rich, landed bourgeois friends and associates (Ruskin’s father was a wealthy businessman) — exactly the kind of people profiting by the economic divide Fors set out to dismantle. And I was drawn to the idea of a man with high-minded, utopian ideals trying to “lift all boats” with a flood of bizarre tracts most useful, I can only assume, in starting fires to heat working class London homes when coal prices rose.

In The Guild of Saint Cooper, these things surface and then disappear again as other ideas and inspirations, and the work itself, wrestled for center stage. A character who for lack of a better term I’d call the book’s antagonist, is named Russell Jonskin, for instance, and it is his organization that gives the book its title. Like Ruskin, Jonskin wants to “lift all boats” in a way, and the fact that his idea — to create an alternate history with a TV hero people can rally behind — is patently absurd for me creates tension around the question of whether he should be seen as a charlatan or simply a fool. In a place where people have given up hope, is hope itself a reason for hope, whatever form it takes?

Seemingly against all odds, the Guild of St George still exists. In the early 20th century Ruskin’s thought inspired several utopian communities and colleges in England and here in the U.S. — he was obviously not alone in his estimation of the damaging effects of capitalism. It never turned into the kind of broad social reform movement he would have liked to see, but who knows? Maybe in another couple hundred years, after Western society has collapsed and we’re building anew, his name and influence will rise again, and people will rally around his ideas, and Fors Clavigera will be required reading for the happy workers across the continents as we try desperately to avoid repeating our mistakes.

Or maybe they’ll be reading The Guild of Saint Cooper and saying WTF.

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Shya Scanlon is the author of the novels Forecast and Border Run, and of the poetry collection In This Alone Impulse. He received his MFA from Brown University, and lives in Manhattan and Bearsville, New York, with his wife.