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September 14, 2016
Now Available: 19th Century Studies, Vol. 25.

The cover of NCS Volume 25


March 7, 2013
NCS introduces new online reviews feature. See online reviews.


March 1, 2011
NCSA introduces new Nineteenth Century Studies journal Web site.


March 15, 2010
Now Available: 19th Century Studies, Vol. 22.

The New

Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence. By Kristin Mahoney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xi + 261. 21 black-and-white illustrations: $103.00 (hardback).

Kristin Mahoney’s Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence presents a series of case studies of artists and writers who anachronistically employed “Decadent” aesthetics and strategies even after the Decadent Movement’s fin-de-siècle popularity had waned.

Mahoney calls for and contributes to a “reperiodization of the Decadent Movement” and seeks to continue the work of pushing against the limitations of periodization in historical writing (p. 15). She also corrects previous notions that aesthetes were apolitical, arguing that Decadent approaches of detachment, aloofness, camp, and humor were political strategies, employed against wartime jingoism – the cosmopolitan coolness of dandyism confronted the militaristic patriotism in early twentieth-century England. In the post-Victorian era, Decadence was an “outmoded” aesthetic employed by those who sought to critique from the margins of mainstream culture. Mahoney draws attention to the peculiarity of this revivalist movement being not as temporally removed from its origins as most other stylistic revivals (e.g., neo-Gothic, neo-Classical), making early twentieth-century Decadence appear almost as a continuation of the yellow ‘90s. Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence contributes to a larger body of scholarship pursuing a more nuanced understanding of the Victorian/Modern divide, and Mahoney broadens interpretations of this shift by examining artists and authors whose lives and work linger from one era into the other.

Though Mahoney clearly positions herself amongst contemporary scholars on Decadence, drawing on the work of Regenia Gagnier, Richard Dellamora, Dennis Denisoff, Joseph Bristow, and Warwick Gould (amongst others), it is the author’s original readings and use of primary sources that stand out. In research for this project, Mahoney has examined an impressive array of materials: novels, periodicals, radio broadcasts, caricatures, illustrations, exhibitions, plays, letters, marginalia, essays, speeches, biographies, poems, short stories, minutes from society meetings, menus, photographs, and unpublished manuscripts. Her engagement with this range of sources consistently serves the main thrust of her argument;, however, Mahoney is slightly more adept with textual sources than visual material, and examinations of the latter are where she tends to lean more on the scholarship of others.

In the introduction, Mahoney situates her own use of the term “Decadent,” declaring her aim to broaden and “diversify” how this term is understood and applied. With clarity and confidence Mahoney summarizes that in the 1890s, Decadent artists used satire, wit, camp, irony, erotics, and detachment for social and political critique. She builds from this to argue that in the early twentieth century, “Practicing Decadence at a historical distance,” after the apex of its popularity, “compounded its detachment and its capacity for critique” (p. 3). The author creatively and effectively compares post-Victorian and postmodern aesthetics, arguing that both rely on pastiche, playfulness, and a sense of irony while referencing the past.

Across her varied chapters, Mahoney shows different ways in which Decadence was put to use: from buoying conservative English aristocracy to empowering and recovering promises of female sexual liberation and alternative gender identity, all under the cosmopolitan influence of international encounters in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Each of the five chapters focuses on a central figure beginning with an introduction to the artist/writer, their expatriate experiences and the Decadent predecessors that most influenced them, followed by an examination of how they applied these anachronistic aesthetics to modern political issues and how their work was received. From chapters one to four, the characters’ twentieth-century ends become increasingly tragic: Max Beerbohm’s (1872–1956) dandyish wit was adored by a nostalgic nation; Vernon Lee’s (1856–1935) wartime pacifism was condemned; Baron Corvo (1860–1913) lived in miserable poverty, and his works were later misappropriated by conservative aristocracy; and Althea Gyles (1868–1949) was rejected and ostracized as a self-conceived martyr dying in squalor. The fifth chapter, “Crusading Decadent,” presents a younger, more vibrant expat, Beresford Egan (1905–84), whose evolving work Mahoney sketches as an outworking of the progression of his ideas of feminine sexuality, largely influenced by his wife Caterina Bower Alcock. Chapters one, two, four, and five trace stylistic antecedents: Beerbohm’s caricatures as a pastiche of D.G. Rossetti’s (1828–82) work; Lee’s use of Walter Pater’s (1839–1894) terminology; Gyles’ inherited ideology from Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) and W.B. Yeats (1865–1939); and Egan’s appropriation of Aubrey Beardsley’s (1872–98) style. With a slightly different structure, chapter three follows the misinterpretations of Corvo’s work by English aristocratic clubs, specifically the Corvine Society. Mahoney’s brief call for further scholarship on Corvo at the end of this chapter is particularly rousing, as she asserts that these willful mishandlings of Corvo’s texts have rendered the political undercurrent of his writings as the insignificant ramblings of an eccentric instead of the nuanced and sometimes contradictory perspectives of a tragic figure who yearned for the stability of social hierarchy.

In the afterword following these five chapters, Mahoney chronologically jumps to Alan Hollinghurst’s 1988 novel, The Swimming-Pool Library, to show how Decadent strategies persisted. Mahoney traces this work, and queer theory itself, back to roots in late nineteenth- century Decadence and Wilde in particular. Some of the figures from previous chapters reappear here in the afterword, but there is not an effort to bring them all together in a neat conclusion. Instead, Mahoney’s aim is to show how far the afterlife of 1890s Decadence extends. Her earlier chapters locate its influence throughout the world wars, but this afterward leaps forward to argue that twentieth- -century discourses on gender and sexuality are still not only informed by the work of earlier Decadents, but also that these discourses still utilize the same strategies of camp, playfulness, irony, and aloofness to critically engage from the margins of society.

The afterward serves to connect the legacy of Decadence, often thought of as existing primarily in the 1890s, to the late twentieth century where, as a strategic aesthetic, it extends beyond temporal boundaries. This is the driving force behind Mahoney’s project and its place in scholarship on Decadence: to broaden the understanding of the term “Decadence,” which has often been interpreted as an apolitical movement bound to late nineteenth-century western Europe. Mahoney’s straightforward, rigorous historicism, based on copious material evidence and insightful textual examination, furthers this larger effort to understand the long-ranging influence of the Decadent 1890s.

Wendy Ligon Smith
Somerville, MA
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Aesthetic Tracts: Innovation in Late-Nineteenth-Century Book Design. By Ellen Mazur Thomson. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2015. Pp. v + 177. 77 illustrations: 16 plates and 51 figures. $55.00 (hardcover with dust jacket).

In Aesthetic Tracts: Innovation in Late-Nineteenth-Century Book Design, Ellen Mazur Thomson looks at books as objects that were designed intentionally as “aesthetic manifestoes”: beautiful objects designed to reflect their creators’ artistic sensibilities. Focusing on the period between 1875 and 1900 in France, England, and the United States, Thomson shows how a community of book designers – including binders, poets, and artists – decided to create not just beautiful books but also books that expressed their individual artistry. In doing so, they were following the model proposed by Boston book cover designer Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842–1904) in 1894 that books should become an “aesthetic tract.”

Thomson positions her argument in contrast to those of art historians who have tended to view material texts as being “inadvertent reflections of ideologies or historical conditions” (p. x). What Thomson shows instead is that book design during this period was anything but inadvertent; that, instead, late nineteenth-century books were designed to express aesthetic ideals. In addition, she seeks to explain why book designers became so interested in producing designs that reflected their ideas and which strategies they used to ensure the books would indeed be a physical manifestation of these ideas. Last, Thomson shows how book designers used the changes in printing technology of the late nineteenth century to their own advantage: namely, how transformations in lithography and wood engraving, as well as the discovery of Japanese prints, enabled book designers to create new and meaningful designs.

Chapter 1 deals with how the transformation and evolution of print technology led to an evolution of the book trade. As books were made more cheaply and in greater quantity, and as production had to meet a higher demand, the relationship to these objects changed. For some people, these technological changes – as well as contemporary art movements like Japonisme –allowed book designers to create innovative book designs, which were then put on display in world’s fairs and international exhibitions. In these settings, book-cover designs served as a powerful display of nationalism, with each country showcasing their achievements, while also being a form of art that allowed visitors to discover other cultures.

But while there were common aesthetic goals shared by this community of book designers, there were also disputes regarding the physical appearance of the book: should it merely be a marketing tool or did it have a higher artistic purpose? Chapter 2 focuses on this question. On the one hand, Thomson demonstrates, book designers wanted to create designs that were not merely decorative but that were also meaningful. That was the case of the French Henri-François Marius Michel (1846–1925) who thought the overall mood and meaning of a book should be reflected in its decoration. On the other hand, publishers saw cover design as a great advertising tool that could increase book sales and instead favored pictorial illustrations of the most dramatic individual scenes from a given text.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the American book cover designer Sarah Wyman Whitman, a wealthy woman who produced close to three hundred covers and whose designs were influenced by Japanese art. Interestingly, while she embraced the idea that books could be beautiful objects, she mostly worked on books produced for the mass market. Rarely were her book covers intended for deluxe editions.

Chapter 4, meanwhile, deals with one particular book, Histoire des quatre fils Aymon, illustrated by Eugène Grasset (1845–1917), annotated by Charles Marcilly, and printed by Charles Gillot (1853–1904), to show how an ancient text was reinvigorated thanks to a novel visual format. While much has been written about this book, the author focuses instead on the visual tactics used by its creators – the most important of which was gillotage – to make the text more appealing to a contemporary readership.

The emergence in the 1890’s of the livre d’artiste is the focus of chapter 5. As illustrations were becoming more widespread in the late nineteenth century, the illustrator’s status changed and so did his or her relationship to the writer. While some feared illustrations would distract from the written word and mislead the readers, others looked to have their books illustrated by artists, thus reinforcing the vision of the book as an objet d’art.

Chapter 6 is devoted to three writers involved in the design of their own books. Using the examples of James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98), and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Thomson shows that these men believed the book’s materiality was as important as their words and used all the tools at their disposal to achieve their vision.

Chapter 7, on the other hand, looks at three printer-publishers, Edouard Pelletan (1854–1912), Walter Biggar Blaikie (1847–1928), and Theodore Low De Vinne (1828–1914), whose philosophy was to produce beautiful books that enhanced the meaning of the text. For them, the book should not merely be an ornament; it should also provide readers immediate access to the writer’s words.

Finally, chapter 8 serves as the book’s conclusion. Here, Thomson uses international exhibitions and book exhibits to summarize various themes of the book. These events exemplified changing conceptions of book design in Europe and America. They revealed how books became objects whose aesthetics changed with the technological revolution in printing. They reflected disputes over book design and art. They highlighted the influence of Japonisme. And they showcased the elevation of the material text to a fine art.

This book is best suited to scholars with an interest in book design, graphic design, and the history of print culture. One of Ellen Mazur Thomson’s strong suits lies in her descriptions of the books and their designs. Not only are they incredibly detailed, but they also manage to make the illustrations come alive. I only wish there had been a discussion of the role of women in book design. While Thomson dedicates a chapter to Sarah Wyman Whitman, there is nothing about other women working in this male-dominated field. I believe that looking into how women in particular used book design to express their aesthetic sensibilities would have reinforced the author’s argument.

Hélène Huet
University of Florida
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Decadence, Degeneration, and the End: Studies in the European Fin de Siècle. Edited by Marja Härmänmaa and Christopher Nissen. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Anyone who studies European fin de siècle culture knows that the concept of century’s end as a social and cultural phenomenon is one of shifting perspectives. One can view the fin de siècle as an era of rapid social change, reflected in such cultural movements as Post-Impressionism, Symbolism, Decadence, and Art Nouveau. Fin de siècle can also be defined as a mood, usually described through negatives: a pessimistic outlook on scientific and technological progress, a rejection of bourgeois morality, a fear of the demands of modern life, a fascination with themes of death and disease, and a retreat into the world of the imagination. At the same time, fin-de-siècle culture celebrates the lures of ambiguity, enigma, mystery, and the occult; the imagery of dreams, visions, and hallucinations; and the heady scent of rebellion in the forms of socialism, anarchism, and millenarianism. Given this mélange of themes, relatively little is straightforward about fin-de-siècle discourse and imagery. The themes of decadence and degeneration provide points of entry, melding the soft, silken tones of a Des Esseintes with the grating rasp of a Max Nordau. Whether envisioning the end of civilization or the finality of mortal existence, the poets, painters, playwrights, and authors of the fin de siècle provoked insights into the rich stew of social mores and human behavior.

Decadence, Degeneration, and the End: Studies in the European Fin de Siècle, a compact book of scholarly essays edited by Marja Härmänmaa and Christopher Nissen, offers some new perspectives on the poetry, literature, art, and science of the fin-de-siècle era. This slender collection packs a great deal of information under four sub-headings: “The Twilight World”; “The Seduction of Sickness”; “Decadence and the Feminine”; and “Two Studies of Death.” The individual subjects include the familiar (Aubrey Beardsley‘s (1872–98) illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s (1854–1900) Salomé (1893), the poetry of Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938)), the less familiar (the poetry of Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933) and Stefan George (1868–1933), Wilde’s fairy tales), and the unfamiliar (the artists Mariia Iakunchikova (1870-1902) and Charles Cottet (1863–1925), Latin American modernismo). The grand ambitions of this essay collection are announced at the very beginning with Mason Tatersall’s “Thermal Degeneration: Thermodynamics and the Heat Death of the Universe in Victorian Science, Philosophy, and Culture,” in which the introduction of the physics of the end of the universe initiates a spirited debate amongst the Victorian intelligentsia. In contrast, the final essay, Marja Härmänmaa’s “The Seduction of Thanatos: Gabriel D’Annunzio and the Decadent Death,” focuses on one Italian poet and provides an appraisal of his inventive imagery of death, eros, and the soul, giving shape to quintessential fin-de-siècle concepts: mourir en beauté and Liebestod. The progression of topics thus starts with the end of the universe and culminates in a personal obsession with death.

Of course, any study of decadence and degeneration must consider the numerous portrayals of Salome. Gülru Çakmak, in “‘For the Strong-Minded Alone’: Evolution, Female Atavism, and Degeneration in Aubrey Beardsley’s Salomé,” analyzes the malevolent effects that the British artist achieves through the emphasis on grotesque deformations of Salome’s body, reflecting then-current theories about transgressive androgyny and criminal behavior. As Johannes Hendrikus Burgers makes clear in his essay, “The Spectral Salome: Salomania and Fin-de-Siècle Sexology and Racial Theory,” this popular depiction of the femme-fatale should be read as more than a bugbear of powerful femininity. Burgers expands his investigation of the cultural construction of Salome as an antithesis of the Christian image of proper womanhood, an orientalist and anti-Semitic fantasy that depicts a monstrous otherness, and a censorious commentary on the physical realities of the female body. Kyle Mox rounds out this sequence with “Decadence, Melancholia, and the Making of Modernism in the Salome Fairy Tales of Strindberg, Wilde, and Ibsen.” He cleverly embeds decadent culture within the nascent throes of modernism, suggesting that the decay so celebrated in fin de siècle aesthetics creates fertile ground for modernist experimentation. He suggests that the Salome story possesses a compelling motif of “the dancing daughter,” found not only in Wilde’s play but also in August Strindberg’s (1849–1912) Miss Julie (1888) and Henrik Ibsen’s (1828–1906) Hedda Gabler (1890), both of the latter considered pioneering icons of modern theater.

Some of the more interesting essays approach the familiar conventions of decadence from innovative angles that subvert those very conventions. Magali Fleurot considers the socialist implications of Wilde’s fairy tale collections in “Decadence and Regeneration: Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales as a Tool for Social Change.” The author of “The Soul of Man under Socialism” was also caricatured in late Victorian society as the epitome of dandyism. His fairy tales proffer moral themes, occasionally punctuated by sobering conclusions, wrapped in the lapidary prose of the decadent aesthete. Fleurot contends that Wilde meant to upend the traditional elements of the fairy tale in order to encourage bold social change in the larger culture. In comparison the commercial culture of Art Nouveau posters receives an intriguing refashioning in Abigail Susik’s “Consuming and Consumed: Woman as Habituée in Eugène Grasset’s Morphinomaniac.” Grasset’s color lithograph of a morphine addict (with its pendant La Vitrioleuse) seems out of step with his success as one of the most elegant of Art Nouveau graphic designers. Yet, Susik identifies the work as a fundamental critique, a satire in fact, of the habituée, an amalgam of the New Woman and the femme-fatale, reflecting in a skewed mirror the image of the female consumer found in so many contemporary advertisements.

This essay collection is a reminder that the fin de siècle still provides rewarding exploration for cultural historians. The message follows that decadence does not immediately signal a coda to vital experiences and degeneration might be fertile ground for further experimentation. One of the more pleasurable features of this multi-faceted study lies in the placement of modernism as just one backdrop to the panorama of the nineteenth-century’s end, one of many rich possibilities for the future history of European culture.

Richard A. Schindler, Ph.D
Professor of Art
Allegheny College
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Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle. By Stephan Karschay. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp. ix +295. $110.00 (cloth).

Adapted from a dissertation that received awards from the German Association for the Study of British culture, Stephen Karschay’s book examines six Gothic texts through the lens of nineteenth-century degeneration discourse, which he analyzes in the Foucauldian tradition as “a certain systematicity of ideas, concepts, and opinions about a given subject in a particular historical context” (pp. 14–15). In this well-researched study, Karschay argues that degeneration discourse provided tools to detect degeneracy in literary characters, supported the relegation of the strange to the Other, and ultimately expanded to such a scope as to subsume the Victorian self within its catalogues of deviance.

In the introductory chapter, Karschay traces the etymology of “degeneration” from spiritual connotations and botanical usage to its employment by the psychologist Bénédict Augustin Morel (1809–73) in Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine (1857), which defined human degeneration as “‘a pathological deviation from an original type’” (p. 12). In chapter two, “Degeneration and the Victorian Sciences,” Karschay continues a careful survey of writings by Morel, Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), Henry Maudsley (1835–1918), Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), and Max Nordau (1849-1923). Following in the path of Edward Chamberlain and Sander Gilman’s Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress (1985), Daniel Pick’s Faces of Degeneration (1989), and William Greenslade’s Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel: 1880–1940 (1994), Karschay examines degeneration discourse as developing in psychopathology, sexology, criminology, and cultural criticism and, as the focus of his study, intersecting with literary works.

Chapter three, “Detecting the Degenerate: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan,” undertakes a comparative analysis of modes and means of detecting degeneracy. Concerning The Strange Case, Karschay cautions that, “Throughout the narrative, Stevenson uses his hints most sparingly and only insinuates Hyde’s degeneracy, without ever openly naming it” (p. 93). Stevenson’s descriptions of Hyde as simian and hairy suggest the atavism Lombroso identified as indicative of criminality, as Stephen Arata has observed in Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (1996). Karschay boldly pursues the influence of degeneration discourse further, construing the lawyer Utterson’s remark that Hyde’s would be a visage “‘worth seeing’” as indicating that “the gentlemen in Stevenson’s novel tacitly assume that it will conform to their preconceived ideas about deviance’s inevitable legibility. After all, criminal anthropology offered its disciples elaborate taxonomic catalogues of stigmatic markers under which the deviant Hyde’s features should be subsumable” (p. 89). The cautious literary critic may be skeptical that the tacit assumptions of these fictional characters can be discovered, however, and the novella offers scant support that the gentlemen are “disciples” of criminal anthropology. Turning to The Great God Pan, Karschay calls for alertness to a different set of degenerationist cues, as the femme fatale Helen Vaughn does not bear physical stigmata despite her unspeakable repugnance comingled with intoxicating allure. Rather, the origin of her lethal powers aligns with degenerationist’s concerns regarding inherited predisposition to sexual deviance and criminality, as she is the offspring of an unfortunate orphan girl subjected to a neurological experiment to allow here to see the pagan Pan, who impregnates her. Karschay concludes that, “where Edward Hyde betrays his degenerate nature through his unnamable deformity, The Great God Pan’s villainess confounds the few who actually get a glimpse of her by her extraordinary beauty and an ambivalent and elusive sense of Otherness” (pp. 98–99), drawing attention to a self/Other binary that is heavily engaged throughout the study.

Chapter four, “Othering the Degenerate: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle,” analyzes the eponymous monsters as Othered temporally (to modernity), as species (exhibiting animalism), racially (from Transylvania and somewhere “‘oriental to the finger-tips’” (p. 143)), and through sexual deviance (the vampiric bite’s eroticism and the beetle-creature’s mesmerism). The heroine Mina Harker appeals explicitly to degeneration discourse, asserting that Dracula is “‘a criminal and of criminal type. Nordau and Lombroso would so classify him" (p. 53). Moreover, as previous scholars have noted, some of the most tangible physiognomic links to degeneration discourse in Gothic fiction are found within Dracula and The Beetle. Karschay concludes the chapter by focusing on the manners in which the Victorian self is implicated as susceptible to the forces and impulses that have been Othered in Gothic fiction. “A reading that foregrounds the destabilization which the novels’ monsters cause in the self’s binary conceptualization of normativity and deviance,” Karschay argues, “can reveal how the late-Victorian Gothic frequently projects a culture’s internal transgressive elements onto an alien Other to maintain the illusion of a stable normative self” (p. 125).

Chapter five, “Normalising the Degenerate: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan,” examines the threat of degeneration within the Victorian breast, focusing upon characters who are physiognomically unblemished but are vile and selfish by normative Victorian standards. Like Dorian Gray, the devil in the guise of Lucio and the protagonist’s vilified wife Sibyl possess handsome appearances, and both novels deny the belief voiced by Basil Hallward, the painter of Dorian’s portrait, that “‘[s]in is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face’” (p. 175). Karschay argues that this remark, “betrays Basil to be a true Lombrosian, convinced as he is that acts of deviance will inscribe themselves stigmatically on an individual’s face” (p. 176). The careful reader, however, might recall Lombroso’s commitment to the inborn rather than symptomatic nature of stigmatic markers of degeneracy and also query whether the notion of sin Basil suggests is that of the father visited upon the hapless heir or rather the consequence of individual free will and indulgence in vice.

Throughout the study Karschay argues that degeneration discourse was inherently destabilized by failing to ground its own norms. As a titular concern, Karschay’s study dwells frequently upon the relationship of degeneration to normativity, and attends to the distinction between normality (born of 19th-century statisticians) and normativity (socially and legally imposed codes). Karschay acknowledges that the creeping degeneration discourse of the 19th century was at best a pseudoscience, often freighted with moralizing religious beliefs and disposed to draw as heavily from the preexisting theories of phrenology and physiognomy as from the field of evolutionary biology. Unsurprisingly, by the fin de siècle “degeneration” had mushroomed to encompass “[c]riminals, the insane, prostitutes, sexual perverts, men of genius, hooligans, anarchists, colonized races, the physically disabled, homosexuals, New Women, the urban poor as well as effete aristocrats” (p. 18). As Karschay demonstrates, this expansive degeneration discourse contributed to fin-de-siècle Gothic literary conventions, yet it also constitutes a multifaceted lens best applied to literary criticism with caution, as it is liable to produce the evidence it seeks.

Sarah Sik
Kentucky College of Art + Design at Spalding University
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Bound to be Modern: Publishers’ Cloth Bindings and the Material Culture of the Book, 1840–1914. By Kristina Lundblad, translated by Alan Crozier. New Castle: Oak Knoll, 2015. Pp. 336. 150 color illustrations and 50 tables. $95.00 (cloth).

Bound to be Modern, originally published in Swedish in 2010, traces the many changes which affected processes and practices of book-binding in Sweden during the rapidly mutating 1840–1914 period. The study especially focuses on publishers’ industrial cloth bindings (as opposed to artisanal, privately-commissioned bindings) which, by the 1870s, were becoming firmly embedded into Swedish publishing milieus. An extended corpus of primary and secondary sources (bindings but also publishers’ inventories, statistics, accounts, and so on) allows the author to draw a rich and nuanced analysis, bringing together the fields of bibliography, visual and material culture studies and cultural history. The force and appeal of this specialist study is that technical and structural changes (such as the transition from a semi-private, small-scale craft production to an industrial and systematic organisation of book-binding under the impulse of publishing houses, or the introduction of the controversial binding case around 1830) are examined in relation to shifts in the social fabric (with a special emphasis on the rise of urban consumers’ society).

Despite its clearly delineated geographical focus, the study also establishes appropriate connections with European and American book cultures at a time of growing international exchanges; thus offering a good complement to Allen’s Victorian Bookbindings: A Pictorial Survey (1976) or Morris and Levin’s The Art of Publishers’ Bookbindings 1815–1915 (2000).

Lundblad’s argument unfolds across two contrasting, quasi-autonomous parts, respectively entitled “Book Culture in Transformation” and “Modernity and Material Culture.” The first part, descriptive in tone as well as content, provides a dense, detailed and chronological narrative of book-binding in Sweden (the first account of its kind in English). Sections focus on binding, publishing and marketing practices over the period under study; the most crucial changes in technology; and trends in publishers’ bindings. The numerous colour plates, beyond their aesthetic function and appeal, play a central part in the discussion: bindings, but also engravings of machines, paintings, photographs of printers' and editions’ binderies or interiors lend life to the author’s discourse. Numerous additional tables and diagrams offer further evidences. For instance, the author has compiled minutious diagrams showing the repartition of types of bindings depending on genres across the years, supporting the fast popularisation of publishers’ bindings and binding cases. The dry, technical language, which may discourage a novice reader, is fully explained and typologies of important terms are punctually given (in boxes beside the main text). The concern with definitions and clarity make Bound to be Modern a practical and ever-relevant handbook for the student of books. The quality and density of the information provided restore the complex and multi-layered life of books across the nineteenth century.

However, it is the second (and shorter) part which proves to be the most intellectually stimulating and valuable. Where the first part rigorously – yet perhaps a bit perfunctorily – reconstructs the history of Swedish book-binding, the second part evocatively embraces its socio-cultural meaning. Lundblad situates books within the profuse and lively Victorian “culture of things” (so depicted in the writings of Kenneth L. Ames, Lizabeth A. Cohen or Asa Briggs). There, posters, ornamented matchstick boxes, tobacco boxes, soapboxes, and perfume bottles share space with print matter. The section on “book as furniture” is especially captivating, paralleling with the nearly-simultaneous emergence of “music as furniture” in bourgeois interiors (as defined by Kyle S. Barnett).1 Lundblad moves from the book as a discrete object to a book as a physical milieu or system, which organises the architecture of living. One is reminded of the “bibliomania” of the nineteenth century, vividly described by Gustave Flaubert (1821–80) in his 1836 short story of the same name.

Lundblad thereby uncovers how the book became a site of desire, consumption and “distinction” (in Bourdieu’s terms); she argues that decorative publishers’ bindings (characterised by their illustration, typography, ornament) came to reflect (as well as inform) readers’ aesthetic and literary – but perhaps also socio-political – sensibilities at the turn of the twentieth century. A similar point was also made by Stewart Plein (2009) in his skilful study of Appalachian stereotypes in publishers’ bindings from 1850 to 1915.2 Lundblad suggests that aesthetics and binding played a crucial part in readers’ physical and psychological experience of the book, arguing for a materiality of reading, which “has scarcely been explored at all” (p. 76). This emphasis on sensual and sensorial – the author also describes them as “haptic” – encounters with books is perhaps the most original contribution which Bound to be modern makes to book-binding studies. In what could be described as a “phenomenology of reading,” she reminds us that “the tactile character of the world of objects is a prominent feature of the late nineteenth century” (p. 226). She confidently describes how chromolithography and colour-blocking of cloth bindings infused book covers with expressive powers. Another interesting discussion focuses on the presence of authors’ names on book covers in the 1870s, though the author does not give a fully satisfactory explanation for it. It may have been fruitful to reflect upon the emergence of authors as subjectivities and, increasingly so, as commodifiable “brands.” The author also reflects on the book as an object of mass-culture, and of mass individualism (described as “the phenomenon of people performing similar acts and buying the same mass-produced things in order to create and manifest an individuality” (p. 27)). The study resonates with Bayly's notion of modernity as a “process of emulation and borrowing.”3 As a cultural object, the book reciprocally allowed for conformity and individualisation; it mediated both a common, homogeneous culture and a privately curated one.

What the author suggests, throughout, is the persisting entwinement of form, content and socio-cultural mediation. Books prompt specific forms of sociability, and reciprocally indicate wider structures of sharing, learning, and passing on culture. It follows that the place given to books in society reveals deeper traits of this society’s relationship to knowledge-making. Lundblad locally engages with contemporary book and print cultures, sketching a discussion on the cultural implications of e-books (p. 25), critically measuring the electronic present against the grain of the analogue past.

Notes

1. See Kyle S. Barnett. “Furniture Music: The Phonograph as Furniture, 1900–1930,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 18, no. 3 (December 2006): 301–24.
2. See Stewart Plein, “Portraits of Appalachia: The Identification of Stereotype in Publishers’ Bookbindings, 1850–1915,” Journal of Appalachian Studies 15, nos. 1/2 (Spring–Fall 2009): 99–115.
3. See Christopher A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 10.

Elodie A. Roy
University of Glasgow and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
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Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence. By Vincent Sherry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xi + 287. $45.99 (hardback).

Vincent Sherry’s Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence is a deft and meticulous investigation of the forgotten role that decadence plays in the literary history of modernism. Sherry’s analysis of late nineteenth- to early twentieth-century British and Anglo-American poetry, which focuses largely on authors such as T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) and Ezra Pound (1885–1972), challenges the purposeful omission of decadence from a historical thread that privileges newness and originality. This restrictive view limits our understanding of the complex origins of modernity in favor of a unified, though overly simplistic narrative. Sherry redresses this wrong and asserts that to elide decadence from this history is to negate a vital part of the formation of modernism.

Decadence for Sherry describes an awareness that we are living in a period of decline, and embodies “all the qualities that mark the end of great periods… an intense self-consciousness… an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity” (p. 4). Tensions with decadence arise due to the heavily favored notion that modernity should be fresh and new, and thus unmarred by the apocalyptic tropes of the decadent.

Further reasons for the omission of decadence from the history of modernist poetry are manifold. Arthur Symons’s (1865–1945) book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899; 1919) – which is considered the emblematic volume on modernist poetics – was originally entitled The Decadent Movement in Literature. The change in nomenclature was not a mere whim; it was an ideologically motivated, intentional rewriting of modernist history. Because the symbolist poets were devoted to the notion of beginnings and innovation that so characterized modernism itself, it was symbolism, not decadence, which was thought to tell “the right story of origins” for modernism (p. 11).

Why were decadence and symbolism thought to be such opposing forces, however, and why were figures such as Symons so intent on polarizing their differences? To them, symbolism was a “theory” that “encodes a sense of creative possibility for a new literature,” whereas decadence was simply a “mood,” capturing “a sense of endings rather than beginnings” (p. 7). The work of Pound and W.B. Yeats further toppled the reign of decadence in favor of the perceived originality of the symbolist movement. Yeats’s interest in Irish nationalism, along with his heavy involvement with the creative doctrines of symbolism, and Symons’s desire to position Yeats as a major figure of the modernist movement, set the stage for this move away from decadence as a frame of reference for understanding “the long turn of the twentieth century” (p. ix). Decadence was perceived as a threat to the established understanding of modernity.

Sherry seeks to reclaim the word decadence because it is synonymous with “some of the most disturbing and tradition-shaking qualities in modernism, which ‘symbolism’ has muted” (pp. 20–21). He does so through an engaging, but critically sophisticated analysis that utilizes a diverse cache of theoretical perspectives. One of Sherry’s major strengths, and what makes the book so readable even for scholars outside of his specific field, is his multifaceted approach. He evokes wide-ranging British and American authors such as Baudelaire, Poe, and D.H. Lawrence, and interweaves them seamlessly with critical theory by such heavyweights as Derrida, Jameson, Marx, Adorno, Nietzche and even Freud (Sherry’s analysis of the link between the death drive and decadence is particularly adroit). His strong interest in modernist and postmodernist theory is not cursory, but deeply engaging and expansive, adding an unusually complex level to his already excellent analysis and richly sophisticated writing.

One of the book’s most fascinating expositions is Sherry’s comparison of queerness with the ideologies of decadence, which he addresses primarily in his introduction but further in his chapter on T.S. Eliot. Sherry explains that queerness, which was also a defining quality of the decadents, was threatening in the same way as decadence because it challenged the “modern ideology of progressive time in general; it defie[d] most particularly the underlying values of futurity; it denie[d] the Child, as image and emblem of the Future, with the non-reproductive condition of homosexuality” (p. 25). The trope of modernity is to always look to the future, whereas both decadence and queerness transgressively refuse the future in favor of the “imaginative circumstance of aftermath” (p. 26). Thus queerness, like decadence, has long been suppressed as a defining historical force. Sherry’s analysis of this suppression could have long ranging interest for scholars in queer theory and other related fields.

Another particularly compelling aspect of Sherry’s book is his critical and theoretical analysis of the concept of time. His distinction between the modern and the contemporary draws upon Frederic Jameson and a variety of photographic theory. Jameson defines the modern as “just now,” versus the contemporary, which means “now,” with a time lag always separating the two. Since the contemporary is always completely present, modernity is about being put in “productive estrangement from any feeling of a consecutive present,” tying it to “the root sense of décadence…, to fall away” (p. 33–34). In this vein, Sherry evokes the photographic concept of the afterimage, which describes the lapse between sensorial and conceptual recognition. He suggests that “[w]hat was apparently present was actually a memory”: there was always a lost original and thus a feeling of “foregoneness as the condition of artistic representation” (p. 62). This “poetics of afterward” is contrary to notions of originality, and subsequently reinforces Sherry’s thesis that decadence was an important foundational concept to the historical narrative of this period (p. 63).

Sherry’s writing is sophisticated and highly engaging, and his deep understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of this period is staggering. While some academic fields outside of the English tradition have at least nominally acknowledged the foundational role decadence plays in the formations of modernism, Sherry’s book is a notable and important contribution to this larger body of work and will likely change scholars' thinking about the accepted definitions of modernist British poetry in significant ways.

Natalie Phillips
Ball State University
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