Essays

Loie Fuller and the Serpentine

Loie Fuller and the Serpentine

With her "serpentine dance" — a show of swirling silk and rainbow lights — Loie Fuller became one of the most celebrated dancers of the fin de siècle. Rhonda K. Garelick explores Fuller’s unlikely stardom and how her beguiling art embodied the era's newly blurred boundaries between human and machine. more

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Our contributors range from award-winning authors Philip Pullman and Julian Barnes to PhD students seeking an outlet for their more unusual finds. If you’d like to submit then please visit our submissions page. We’d love to hear from you.

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Photographing the Dark: Nadar’s Descent into the Paris Catacombs

Photographing the Dark: Nadar’s Descent into the Paris Catacombs

Today the Paris Catacombs are illuminated by electric lights and friendly guides. But when Félix Nadar descended into this “empire of death” in the 1860s artificial lighting was still in its infancy: the pioneering photographer had to face the quandary of how to take photographs in the subterranean dark. Allison C. Meier explores Nadar’s determined efforts (which involved Bunsen batteries, mannequins, and a good deal of patience) to document the beauty and terror of this realm of the dead. more

Our Masterpiece Is the Private Life: In Pursuit of the “Real” Chateaubriand

Our Masterpiece Is the Private Life: In Pursuit of the “Real” Chateaubriand

While nowadays he might be best known for the cut of meat that bears his name, François-René de Chateaubriand was once one of the most famous men in France — a giant of the literary scene and idolised by such future greats as Alphonse de Lamartine and Victor Hugo. Alex Andriesse explores Chateaubriand's celebrity and the glimpse behind the public mask we are given in his epic autobiography Memoirs From Beyond the Grave. more

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

When the existence of unicorns, and the curative powers of the horns ascribed to them, began to be questioned, one Danish physician pushed back through curious means — by reframing the unicorn as an aquatic creature of the northern seas. Natalie Lawrence on a fascinating convergence of established folklore, nascent science, and pharmaceutical economy. more

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

Woodblocks in Wonderland: The Japanese Fairy Tale Series

From gift-bestowing sparrows and peach-born heroes to goblin spiders and dancing phantom cats — in a series of beautifully illustrated books, the majority printed on an unusual cloth-like crepe paper, the publisher Takejiro Hasegawa introduced Japanese folk tales to the West. Christopher DeCou on how a pioneering cross-cultural endeavour gave rise to a magnificent chapter in the history of children's publishing. more

Brilliant Visions: Peyote among the Aesthetes

Brilliant Visions: Peyote among the Aesthetes

Used by the indigenous peoples of the Americas for millennia, it was only in the last decade of the 19th century that the powerful effects of mescaline began to be systematically explored by curious non-indigenous Americans and Europeans. Mike Jay looks at one such pioneer Havelock Ellis who, along with his small circle of fellow artists and writers, documented in wonderful detail his psychedelic experiences. more

The Myth of Blubber Town, an Arctic Metropolis

The Myth of Blubber Town, an Arctic Metropolis

Though the 17th-century whaling station of Smeerenburg was in reality, at its height, just a few dwellings and structures for processing blubber, over the decades and centuries a more extravagant picture took hold — that there once had stood, defying its far-flung Arctic location, a bustling urban centre complete with bakeries, churches, gambling dens, and brothels. Matthew H. Birkhold explores the legend. more

H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress

H. G. Wells and the Uncertainties of Progress

In addition to the numerous pioneering works of science fiction by which he made his name, H. G. Wells also published a steady stream of non-fiction meditations, mainly focused on themes salient to his stories: the effects of technology, human folly, and the idea of progress. As Peter J. Bowler explores, for Wells the notion of a better future was riddled with complexities. more

Lustucru: From Severed Heads to Ready-Made Meals

Lustucru: From Severed Heads to Ready-Made Meals

Jé Wilson charts the migration of the Lustucru figure through the French cultural imagination — from misogynistic blacksmith bent on curbing female empowerment, to child-stealing bogeyman, to jolly purveyor of packaged pasta. more

Walt Whitman in Russia: Three Love Affairs

Walt Whitman in Russia: Three Love Affairs

Walt Whitman’s influence on the creative output of 20th-century Russia — particularly in the years surrounding the 1917 Revolution — was enormous. For the 200th anniversary of Whitman's birth, Nina Murray looks at the translators through which Russians experienced his work, not only in a literary sense — through the efforts of Konstantin Balmont and Kornei Chukovsky — but also artistic, in the avant-garde printmaking of Vera Ermolaeva. more

Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics

Music of the Squares: David Ramsay Hay and the Reinvention of Pythagorean Aesthetics

Understanding the same laws to apply to both visual and aural beauty, David Ramsay Hay thought it possible not only to analyse such visual wonders as the Parthenon in terms of music theory, but also to identify their corresponding musical harmonies and melodies. Carmel Raz on the Scottish artist’s original, idiosyncratic, and occasionally bewildering aesthetics. more

Get Thee to a Phalanstery: or, How Fourier Can Still Teach Us to Make Lemonade

Get Thee to a Phalanstery: or, How Fourier Can Still Teach Us to Make Lemonade

Hot on the heels of the French revolution — by way of extravagant orgies, obscure taxonomies, and lemonade seas — Charles Fourier offered up his blueprint for a socialist utopia, and in the process also one of the most influential early critiques of capitalism. Dominic Pettman explores Fourier’s radical, bizarre, and often astonishingly modern ideas, and how they might guide us in our own troubled times. more

Loos, Lewdness, and Literature: Tales from the Boghouse

Loos, Lewdness, and Literature: Tales from the Boghouse

In the early 1730s, a mysterious editor (known only as "Hurlothrumbo") committed to print a remarkable anthology: transcriptions of the graffiti from England's public latrines. For all its misogynistic and scatological tendencies, this little-known book of "latrinalia" offers a unique and fascinating window into Georgian life. Maximillian Novak explores. more