From the Print Journal

Decadence in the Age of Modernism. Edited by Kate Hext and Alex Murray

Cover of Decadence in the Age of Modernism. Ed. Kate Hext and Alex Murray
Decadence in the Age of Modernism. Ed. Kate Hext and Alex Murray. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. Pp. 304. $54.95 (cloth); $54.95 (eBook).

© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press

This collection brings new attention to modernism’s self-repression—and the repression by critics—of its origins in fin-de-siècle decadent poetics. Examining a tantalizing range of Anglo-American writers, the contributors variously make a case for decadent writing as entwined with modernist achievements. Running through the volume, too, is an emphasis on the ways in which decadent literature determined a queer poetics that stood astride modernism in the writing of familiar writers such as Djuna Barnes, Ronald Firbank, Gertrude Stein, D.H. Lawrence, Mina Loy, H.D., Hart Crane, and Carl Van Vechten as well as lesser-known figures such as Margaret Sackville, Ada Leverson, Bruce Nugent, and Donald Evans.

The trio of decadent/queer/modernist concerns informs the essay by Vincent Sherry, whose 2018 book Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence is itself a pioneering work tracing the neglected sinews linking modernist artistry and decadent aesthetics. Here Sherry considers the legacy of decadence in the fiction of Woolf, Joyce, Barnes, and Beckett, in which queer, minor characters (St. John Alaric Hurst of Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Baron Felix in Barnes’s Nightwood) wander like ghosts from the Wildean past. Drawing on the argument of Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Sherry suggests that these writers found considerable value in forgoing a viable, erotically normative future. The modernist reliance on a decadent mid-Victorian legacy informs Howard Booth’s essay on Lawrence’s adoption of Swinburnean tropes in his fiction, particularly Swinburne’s use of the Pan figure and the theme of nympholepsy, the belief originating with the Ancient Greeks that human beings could be inhabited by nymphs. For Lawrence, such tropes “imagine a resolution of the split and division between humankind and the world” (186). In later fiction such as St. Mawr (1924), however, Lawrence will come to see such breaches as unbridgeable as he sought to conceive of a futurity beyond or without modernity.

Wilde’s imprisonment for “gross indecency” casts a shadow over much of this volume. Nick Freeman explores post-1895 writers such as John Edmund, Max Beerbohm, and Hector Hugh Munro (Saki), all of whom borrowed the stylistic strategies of decadent writing while dispensing with, through playful satire and elegant evasiveness, its immoral or scandalous scenarios. Kristin Mahoney revisits the career of Wilde’s friend Ada Leverson, whose parodic fictions provided a light critique of dandyism even as they sought to find a place in decadence for feminist aspirations. Joseph Bristow brings fresh insight to the legacy of late-Victorian aestheticism in the work of another feminist, the poet and pacifist Margaret Sackville. Sarah Parker explores the Baudelairean elements in the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who sought to invigorate the spirit of Les Fleurs du Mal (she was one of the volume’s first female translators) with irony, humor, and a markedly American idiom.

This volume resurrects a number of forgotten modernists indebted to the decadent movement. Douglas Mao discusses the literary career of the Greenwich Village poet Donald Evans, whose press Claire Marie published Stein’s writing. Mao considers the place of “cuteness” and “naughtiness” in Evans and Stein’s work, two features of 1890s sensibility that become denigrated in an age of high modernist seriousness and austerity. Kirsten MacLeod offers a fine reading of Van Vechten’s 1923 Jazz-age novel The Blind Bow-Boy, where decadent and camp aesthetics commingle (the novel’s title is a campily lascivious reference to a line in Romeo and Juliet: “. . . the very pin of his heart cleft with the blind bow-boy’s butt shaft”). Michèle Mendelssohn draws on original archival research to explore the life and work of the African-American writer Bruce Nugent, whom Mendelssohn describes as “one of the few African American writers” of the Harlem Renaissance “with the audacity to challenge homophobic prejudice and explicitly portray interracial sensuality” (a characterization that perhaps overly downplays the astonishing openness to same-sex activities of the group as described in Jeffrey C. Stewart recent biography of Alton Locke) (252). In his 1928 novel Gentleman Jigger Nugent presented a dandiacal protagonist who reads like a post-Stonewall, sexually liberated Dorian Gray (“I’m not ashamed of the ways in which I like you,” he tells a man with whom he is smitten, “just because it is considered wrong and not normal. I guess I’m interested in what’s normal for me”) (251).

There is the occasional special pleading. With absurd overkill, Ellis Hanson instructs us that Ronald Firbank is not only “one of the great comic stylists of the English language, certainly the premier comic stylist of the twentieth century, more challenging and distinctive and audacious as a stylist than Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, Evelyn Waugh, E. F. Benson, P. G. Wodehouse, or Noel Coward,” he is a “more original and distinctive stylist than many other novelists who have been canonized as great modernists, more than E. M. Forster or Ford Madox Ford, more than F. Scott Fitzgerald or D. H. Lawrence, even though they invariably upstage him, even displace him, on any syllabus for a survey of modernist fiction” (119). Hanson offers a formalist account of what he considers Firbank’s chief stylistic characteristic, “queer drift,” a restlessly shifting set of foci and multiplied levels of consciousness. The analysis of passages from Firbank’s fiction is finely delineated, although why “queer drift” makes Firbank such an unrivaled colossus of style and audacity, as opposed to a petit maître of remarkable and amusing linguistic effects, is never explained.

The resonating ambitiousness of this collection makes one wish that its compass was not limited to works of literature. The decadent/modernist optic might help us see, for example, why the academic French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with his luminous Salomes and male androgynes, became such a profound influence on Paul Gauguin. This is, after all, an epoch in which modernist writers looked to music and painting as models of how to escape the constricted precincts of realism and so one wishes to know more about the debt to the other arts that writers harbored. For example, Proust admired the paintings of Gustave Moreau (the supreme decadent painter at century’s end), because, Proust wrote, these works revealed the “coloring of a world where each separate color is, not the color of the world, but the color it is in that canvas”—a tribute to pure artifice that is a fundament of decadent (and aestheticist) art.[1] Avant-garde photography, too, gained from its encounter with the era’s aestheticist and decadent sensibilities, as so-called Pictorialist photographers rejected a drab realism for a sumptuous artificiality that strove for “painterly” effects in which beauty of subject matter, composition, and tonality held sway over documentary verisimilitude. (See the 1993 museum catalogue Pictorialism into Modernism for a fine account of this crucial episode in the history of photography.) The decadent/modernist dyad in literature examined in this collection prompts one to wonder, too, how decadence informed the music of modernist composers. The musicologist Richard Taruskin has noted of the “decadent” work of Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg, the unusual use of “semitonal adjacencies” that allowed for once “exotic or recondite harmonies and tonal relations” to seem acceptable.[2]

To be sure, there are some shrewd observations on Wilde’s “Salome” as it morphed into Strauss’s opera in Ellen Crowell’s essay in this volume. Crowell points to the tension in the opera between the gruesome head of John the Baptist and the Symbolist fantasy that eschewed ugly naturalistic elements. There is a telling anecdote, shared with me by the musicologist Charles Rosen, that recounts how Strauss stopped the rehearsal of the first production of “Salome” in Dresden when the soprano playing Salome swung the head of the Baptist too ostentatiously. “Please, please, my dear,” the composer supposedly wailed. “The music is disgusting enough.” Disgust, so prevalent in decadent writing and art, is yet another feature that decadent fin de siècle aesthetics bequeathed to modernist artistry.

With an introduction that manages to be both succinct and encyclopedic, Decadence in the Age of Modernism is an illuminating and ground-breaking consideration of an under-examined subject, one that ably demonstrates that the fin not only outlived the siècle, it thrived in a new century.


[1] Marcel Proust, “Gustave Moreau,” in On Art and Literature, 1896-1919 (New York: Caroll and Graf, 1954), 347-8.

[2] Richard Taruskin, "Decadence," in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume IV, ed. Richard Taruskin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).