Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. Portrait photograph by Napoleon Sarony.

Expatriates at the Fin de Siècle

  • Theme: American literature in Europe

Before the “Lost Generation” of American writers, artists, critics, and fellow-travellers descended on the city in the wake of the First World War, Paris—like much of Western Europe—enjoyed a thriving belle époque of creativity and innovation. For Paris, this was a period of conspicuous consumption and luxury, of shopping arcades and boulevards, of the flâneur and the birth of photography. As with virtually every European cultural movement from 1850 onwards, American travellers and expatriates were closely involved in the artistic developments of this transitional period. As well as Henry James, the era also belonged to aesthetes and symbolists, flamboyant Europeans like Stephane Mallarmé, Joris-Karl Husmans, Marcel Proust, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Oscar Wilde, and Algernon Swinburne, alongside intrepid Americans like Henry Harland, Stephen Crane, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler.

One of the characteristic projects of the so-called “Wilde years” (although Wilde actually distanced himself from the publication) was The Yellow Book. Conceived by the consummate Art Nouveau illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley, and American expatriate novelist Henry Harland, The Yellow Book quickly became a lavishly designed handbook for aesthetes on both sides of the English Channel. The artists and writers who contributed were of the highest calibre, from Beardsley himself, Sargent, and Walter Sickert, to Max Beerbohm, Edmund Gosse, H.G. Wells, W.B. Yeats, George Gissing, Henry James, and many other lesser known figures, including a surprising (for the time) number of women writers and illustrators. For its provocative content, the publication—which ran for 13 issues, from April 1894-April 1897—relied on the inspiring partnership of Harland and Beardsley, and owed its continuing existence to the vision of publisher John Lane, future founder of The Bodley Head press in London. While Beardsley was unfortunately removed from his post as regular illustrator and art editor in 1895—apparently tainted by his close association with Wilde—the inclusion of work by so many esteemed modern artists and writers, and the sharp, satirical style, effectively predicted the direction of the early Modernist movement in the first years of the twentieth century.

Henry Harland himself was an archetypal representative of the new cosmopolitan, transatlantic class. An itinerant traveller, role-player, andprotegé of some of the key literary taste-makers of his time (James included), Harland’s own contributions to The Yellow Book took the form of short, highly stylised stories and tales, and waspish commentary on the London literary scene (often written under his nôm-de-plume “The Yellow Dwarf”). In common with many of his generation, Harland died young, of tuberculosis, in 1905, not long after his cryptic European romances, The Cardinal’s Snuff-Box (1900; 012641.aaa.21), The Lady Paramount (1901; 02637.aaa.14), and My Friend Prospero (1903; 012628.d.30), had begun to receive the approving attention of fellow writers. It is interesting to note that although Henry James regretted his involvement in so apparently frivolous an enterprise as The Yellow Book, he continued to contribute, largely because he held Harland in such high regard: “I hate too much the horrid aspect & company of the whole. And yet I am to be intimately—conspicuously—associated with the 2nd number. It is for gold & to oblige the worshipful Harland” (Henry James, letter to William James, 28 May 1894, quoted in Henry James: A Life in Letters, [1999; YC.1999.b.4469]).

Another expatriate from America who made a name for himself in Europe towards the end of the nineteenth century was Stephen Crane. Although chiefly celebrated nowadays for The Red Badge of Courage (1895; Cup.503.l.56), an innovative, naturalistic retelling of “an episode of the civil war”, the young American was much more popular in his day, blazing a romantic trail through the European salons and drawing-rooms of the fin de siècle. Once again, as with Harland, Crane won the early support Henry James, as well as the coterie of proto-Modernists who convened near the latter’s Kent retreat, including Joseph Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, and John Galsworthy. In effect, Crane—whose fresh, journalistic clarity of prose and rugged “Yankee” style endeared him to the locals—became an honorary member of a predominantly English group of prose innovators. Like Harland, Crane died young (at 29 years), in Europe, and left a large and varied body of fiction and journalism which would came to have a significant influence on the work of later kindred spirits like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair.