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History of Political Economy 36.1 (2004) 214-218
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W. Stanley Jevons: Collected Reviews and Obituaries. Edited and introduced by Takutoshi Inoue; headnotes by Bert Mosselmans; bibliography by T. Inoue and M. V. White. Bristol: Thoemmes, 2002. 2 vols. xv; 728 pp. $295.00.
W. S. Jevons: Critical Responses. Edited by Sandra J. Peart. London: Routledge, 2003. 4 vols. xxxiii; 1401 pp. $660.00.
It may seem unfortunate that two recent collections of volumes cover the same ground. Both Inoue's and Peart's collections contain reviews and responses in the periodicals and daily newspapers of Jevons's work, as well as obituaries of the English economist, who died in 1882. There is considerable overlap between the two collections, and one may wonder whether they just add to the "plethora of cheap and easy facsimile editions" (not actually cheap; see above) Tony Aspromourgos (2000, 2) recently complained about, which "serve to undermine," rather than foster, "new scholarship." Aspromourgos's judgment holds to some extent (not all) for the Inoue collection, but certainly not for Peart's. Let me start with Inoue.
In the very first paragraph of his introduction Inoue refers to Samuel Smiles's Self-Help to characterize Jevons's social position and scientific profile. Smiles's best seller, originally published in 1859, taught mid-nineteenth-century Victorians how to define members of the growing educated middle class with scientific pursuits as gentlemen of science. Smiles emphasized "uprightness of character. A man must really be what he seems or purposes to be" (Smiles, quoted in Secord 2003). Inoue's collection may be taken as an attempt to define Jevons's scientific persona by means of how he was looked at by his contemporaries, especially in those most favored means of publication in Victorian Britain, the daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals, like the Athenaeum, the Contemporary Review, the Westminster Review, the Fortnightly Review, Blackwood's Magazine, and the Pall Mall Gazette.
There is a promise of completeness: Inoue not only covers responses to Jevons's economic work, but to almost all of Jevons's other published work as well. A daring enterprise, pursued by relying only on the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824–1900. From this, Inoue identifies all journals that might possibly have written about Jevons. These reactions to Jevons are then presented chronologically in the order of Jevons's published writings, including reactions to Jevons's (early) studies [End Page 214] in natural philosophy and his studies in logic. The table of contents gives Jevons's article titles (with slight variations) as subject headings. The reviews themselves are, per subject, preceded by a short note indicating what Jevons's study was about, sometimes giving some other information as well. References to secondary literature or footnotes to the reviews are almost completely absent. The collection concludes with an impressive number of obituaries and a revised and extended version of Inoue and White's 1993 bibliography, including references to the reactions and reviews contained in both volumes. This is, without any doubt, the most complete bibliography of Jevons's work to date.
From reading this collection, one cannot evade the conclusion that there is a tension between Jevons's scientific persona as perceived by his contemporaries when he was alive, and after his untimely death. Death, as usual, alleviates judgment. Many (younger) historians of economics will have formed their image of Jevons after the photograph that is the frontispiece of Schabas 1990: a somewhat shy and unassuming natural philosopher who turned his sharp mind to political economy to revolutionize the field, and this is the image indeed that emerges from most obituaries. But this image does not fit well with Jevons's (also well known) battle with those "wrong-headed" political economists David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. During his lifetime, respondents to his work considered this battle ill conceived and misdirected, and to have really obscured the merits of his work. These merits were seldom put in doubt. Whatever work is considered, many reviews start off by praising how "remarkable" or "clever...