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163 T Another Look at The Yellow Book I n The Yellow Book, literature stands on the threshold of the twentieth century. Concealed beneath such familiar tags as “The Aesthetic Decade,” “The Beardsley Period,” “The Yellow Nineties” and others is the transitional nature of the 1890s; and the prevalence of yellow in many of the descriptions suggests the symbolic importance of that famed but ephemeral yellow-hued quarterly. The Yellow Book, which lasted from 1894 to 1897, was more than just a literary quarterly. It was a rallying cry, a term of opprobrium, a ventilator of the stuffy nineteenth-century literary air, and—briefly—an institution.The epitome of the fin-de-siècle years, The Yellow Book looks backward at the waning age of Victoria yet forward to the age of the artist’s alienation. More than any other body of writing of that decade, it appears in retrospect as a bridge between late Victorianism and the twentieth century, between the art-for-art’s sake overrefinements of Pater and Swinburne and recognition of the social value of the literary artifact. TheYellow Book, more than usually assumed, is the nineties. Its garish yellow covers, its harboring writers and artists such as Beardsley, Beerbohm, and Symons, its popping up in theWilde debacle, and its controversial critical reception all have proved to be misleading. Although short-lived, it featured some of the best and most representative literary art of the time in several of Henry James’s most substantial long tales and criticism, as well as both French-inspired naturalists and home-grown English realists; and it is difficult to think in terms of Decadence and Aestheticism when considering the contributions of H. G.Wells, Arnold Bennett (still “Enoch Arnold Bennett ” then), John Buchan, George Gissing, or Harold Frederic. Beginning in mid-decade with the issue of April 1894, TheYellow Book’s thirteen quarterly numbers are more a survey of the literary spectrum of the nineties than its reputation would indicate. It did not “originate the Decadence .” From the beginning, it sought respectability, however much Beardsley ’s art editorship seemed to contradict that tone. And from the beginning, with the Jamesian Henry Harland as literary editor, it shunned the pose of an Farewell,Victoria! 164 avant garde magazine.Yet it died primarily of the misunderstanding it sought from the beginning to dispel. “TheYellow Book was founded, after all,” Ellen Moers reminds us in the Dandy (1960), “not by a coterie with a Message, but by a publisher with an eye for value.” Holbrook Jackson, in The Eighteen Nineties (1913), described TheYellow Book exaggeratedly as “newness in excelsis: novelty naked and unashamed. People were puzzled and shocked and delighted, and yellow became the colour of the hour, the symbol of the time-spirit. It was associated with all that was bizarre and queer in art and life, with all that was outrageously modern .” It “could not be forgiven,” Norman Denny has written, “for daring to be Edwardian withVictoria still on the throne.” But even in that it was typical of its time, for the nineties were just that. Its exuberant yellow-and-black covers have lost their luster over the years, as has much of its contents, and it is difficult now to believe that the periodical ’s most jaundiced reception derived in no small part from its outward appearance. The “Yellow ’Nineties”—and subsequent generalizations— considered the color of TheYellow Book appropriate for a decade in which Victorianism was giving way to Regency attitudes and French influences, for yellow was not only the decor of the notorious and dandified pre-Victorian Regency, but also of the wicked and decadent French novel.Whatever lay between TheYellow Book’s then-unique (for a magazine) hard covers, its reputation has remained through the years what a standard literary history calls a “tone set by the decadent decorations of Aubrey Beardsley.” It was Beardsley, who, in Osbert Burdett’s phrase, provided an adjective for the period; and it was Beardsley, together with an American expatriate writer named Henry Harland, who conceived the idea for TheYellow Book. The former had turned from clerking to illustrating books, and made his greatest early success with grotesque, satiric, fanciful illustrations for­ Wilde’s Salomé, a work perfectly suited to the artist’s mannered, erotic style. The tubercular, dandified young Beardsley was as mannered as his art, prompting one contemporary critic to comment that even Beardsley’s lungs were affected. Barely out of his teens, he was a success after...


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