[The Cunning Tower by Wilfrid: March 23, 2009]
The doomed poets of the 1890s, the Yellow Book, parties at the Café Royale, Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel, Salome, Dorian Gray, Zuleika Dobson.
Fin-de-siècle London still contributes a substantial footnote to histories of English literature. The so-called decadent milieu produced two substantial writers, of course: Yeats, who soon distanced himself from his early flirtation with such matters, and Wilde, who was haunted by it to his early grave. Betting on literary reputations is a mug's game, but Wilde's is in good shape. He would have been remembered in any case as a martyr to homophobia, but in fact his plays - against the odds - remain a staple of London and Broadway stages in the twenty-first century. His comedies, of course, not his lurid, erotic, decadent Salome, published with transgressive illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.
Defining this decadence is a tangled business. Here's a olfactory formula: the literary/artistic "decadence" of the late nineteenth century was the lingering perfume of a romanticism which had left the literary stage, mixed with the sweat and garbage stench of the new realism. Okay, let me try again. One of the most absorbing books of literary criticism ever published, Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony, finds themes of sadism, cruelty, sexual "perversion," death and decay present throughout the course of romanticism. These were not an invention of the fin-de-siècle. As the nineteenth century wore on, and the politically liberal and humane themes of romanticism faded, the decadent themes were left. In France, realism, championed by Zola, sought to bring documentary accuracy to the novel, and an unflinching willingness to address themes viewed by the novel's mainstream audience as sordid: adultery, prostitution, alcoholism.
Zola's young followers, Maupassant and more particularly Huysmans, married the detailed observation of realism to ever more risqué themes. Huysmans' exhaustive, almost clinical catalogue of a morbid aesthete's obsessions, A Rebours (1884), was taken as a definitive decadent statement, and along with Baudelaire's earlier Les Fleurs du Mal, tutored a generation of English and American writers in the theory and practice of decadence.
I said last week that the decadence was a sort of aesthetic triangular trade between Paris, New York and London. It wasn't the case, however, that Paris simply propagated the two anglophone capitals with its most modern ideas in literature, as it arguably did with respect to the plastic arts. Almost mysteriously, America had already sent France a decadent message: the tales and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was dead by the time Baudelaire began issuing French translations of his work in the 1850s. And so a major influence on the decadence which Paris re-exported to New York and London was of American origin.
Even so, American decadence was hardly home-grown. The handful of New York-based "decadent" writers - much less well remembered than their London contemporaries, would certainly have known Poe, but nevertheless read French and learned directly from Huysmans, Gautier, Baudelaire, et al. The best place to begin, for anyone interested in this brief flowering of American ecrivains maudits, is with the work of James Gibbons Huneker. Not unlike Yeats, Huneker in fact survived his bohemian days in rude health and lived to be a grand old man of American criticism, although his reputation has been largely obliterated by that of H.L. Mencken.
Mencken gets the historical credit for shattering the parochialism of American taste and introducing the great figures and themes of European literature to a mainstream audience. Huneker, in fact, was there first, but whereas Mencken had the advantage of a brilliant, idiomatic writing style, Huneker's prose is in the grand manner - unmistakeable, but florid, arched, old-fashioned.
In his old age, he was known as the "critic of the Seven Arts," and indeed he wrote more about music and the theater than about literature. In his youth, however, he followed a determined bohemian path, leaving middle-class Philadelphia for Paris, then New York. In his twenties, he was drinking in Mould's on Union Square and Schwab's near Tomkins Square Park, making his way as a freelance journalist. Perhaps his longevity is explained by a lifelong preference for pilsner over absinthe.
Huneker's works are relatively easy to obtain in used editions (I found most of mine at the Strand over the years). His collections of essays on European authors almost constitute an introduction to late romantic and decadent writing: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Anatole France, Hysmans, Barres, Ibsen (scandalous then, of course), Maupassant, Pater, Maeterlinck; he introduces all these delicate blooms to the American public. He even published an essay on "Art and Alcohol."
He was not a major writer of fiction by any means, but his short stories ("The Haunted Harpsichord," "The of Time") have a cobwebbed doominess which would have been perfectly at home alongside the stories of Dowson in the Yellow Book or the Savoy. His novel, Painted Veils, structured around a reference to Salome, is unfairly forgotten. It's a gentle, erotic satire of life among the bohemians, written from a later perspective (1928): "On the shelf devoted to her beloved Frenchmen, she took down A Rebours..." But no, he's no Henry James.
At Mould's, he drank alongside an altogether more dissipated writer, Francis Saltus. Saltus, and his half-brother Edgar Saltus, are today entirely forgotten. Francis had lived in Paris, known Gautier, could write fluently in French, and now spent his days drinking in bars while producing vast quantities of verse to pay for the next round. If his English contemporaries Dowson and Johnson produced occasional slim volumes, lyrics gushed from Saltus's pen. I have hefted books of his poetry hundreds of pages thick. And if Dowson and Johnson could be gloomy and morbid, Saltus is downright horrific. "Filled with a scorn of life that each day grows.../I curse my sad, inexorable fate." "(T)he dark sod lies heavy on her head/ The worm pollutes the roses of her face..." "Upon the cold, damp slab at rest/She lies..."
Saltus is a poet of decomposition. Perhaps his most inventively nasty fantasy has a rejected lover wishing to die in battle in a distant land, and then to take an extraordinary revenge:
"(L)ong and gory grass
my livid corpose, all crushed and mangled
God speed the gaunt flies which, with virus sleek
Born from the hell of my decomposition
Will cross far seas to bite your rosy cheek."
Difficulty dealing with rejection? Francis Saltus died aged forty, apparently from sulfonal abuse.
Edgar Saltus, also a friend of Huneker, is a less forbidding author. The Perfume of Eros: A Fifth Avenue Incident is a murder mystery set around Gramercy Park. The male protagonist, a precious, philandering poseur, is another incarnation of Huysmans' hero Des Esseintes. Edgar also had a profitable sideline writing about the orgies and excesses of historic royal courts. Edgar and Francis both lie buried in Sleepy Hollow.
If these Americans were influenced by the French, I can find no evidence of reciprocal influence between the London and New York decadents (Edgar Saltus wrote about Wilde years later). One author, however, did make the journey from New York to play a central role in the London scene of the 1890s. Henry Harland's career was a curious one. A New Yorker by birht, he first had success essentially posing as a Jewish author, Sidney Luska, publishing popular sensational novels of Jewish life. Some were later re-issued under the name Harland; unreadable was my conclusion from a brief inspection, and packed with excruciating "dialect."
In London, reincarnated as himself, he hosted an important literary salon, befriended the published John Lane (of The Bodley Head), and became a short story writer and the literary editor of the Yellow Book. His biggest success was his novel, The Cardinal's Snuff-Box, a silly and predictable romance, ornamented with a fashionable theme of Catholicism. The short stories, especially those collected in Grey Roses, are much better. And with Beardsley as art editor, he created an astonishing magazine.
Next week, a final look at London.
Post script: I should trust my instincts. I was tempted to help orient readers with respect to Edgar Saltus's novels by claiming that Carl Van Vechten's early novels of the New York beau- and demi-monde (not his books about black Harlem) were in a direct line of descent. I told myself that was too neat to be true, but hunting around this afternoon I find that Van Vechten included an essay on Edgar Saltus (mentioning Francis too) in his 1926 collection Excavations: A Book of Advocacies. This must be about the only critical appreciation of Saltus by an even slightly well-known writer.