Thomas Bird Mosher, 1852–1923
The Germ: Thoughts Toward Nature in Poetry, Literature, and Art. 1850. Portland, Maine: Thomas B. Mosher, 1898.
If the Germ was the bible of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, then Thomas Bird Mosher’s reprinting of it represented an effort to spread this mid-nineteenth-century English artistic gospel to a new group of fin-de-siècle American converts. Although the original magazine survived for only four issues, from January to April 1850, it had an incalculable importance as the venue for publication of poetry by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and by his sister, Christina (writing under the pseudonym “Ellen Alleyn”), alongside illustrations by Ford Madox Brown and William Holman Hunt. Inspired by British ideals of book design and printing, Mosher became a kind of evangelist, tirelessly advancing the private-press and the fine-printing movements in the U. S., while also bringing to American audiences older works by Victorians such as George Meredith and new works by Aesthetes, such as the lesbian couple who wrote poetry as “Michael Field.” Yet he was better known not as a priestly figure, but as a pirate, for many of his artistically produced books were pirated editions. Indeed, his origins were in keeping with this piratical image: he was the son of a sea captain, and his first voyages abroad came when he was a youth, crossing the ocean with his father.
Elbert Hubbard, 1856–1915
Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors: William Morris. East Aurora, N.Y.: The Roycrofters, 1900.
Q: “When is a Kelmscott Press book not a Kelmscott Press book?” A: “When it’s a book printed at the Roycroft Press.”
On no American contemporary did William Morris have a more profound influence than on Elbert Hubbard, the Indiana-born biographer, polemicist, printer, furniture designer, and socialist. And no one did more to embody and to spread the ideals of the Arts and Crafts in the United States than Hubbard. His exposure to John Ruskin’s and especially to William Morris’s works, as well as his mid-1890s visit to England, transformed his life, led to the founding of his printing works, and eventually resulted in the establishment of a utopian, crafts-centered community in East Aurora, New York, to which hundreds of ardent “Roycrofters” flocked. (The name paid homage to two seventeenth-century English printers, Samuel and Thomas Roycroft.) After Morris’s death, Hubbard felt free to embroider upon his alleged friendship with Morris and, in This Then is a William Morris Book (1907), to claim not merely that they had met—though they had not—but that Morris had “congratulated me on the success of my book, ‘Songs from Vagabondia.’” His Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors: William Morris, with its title-page tribute to the book designs of William Morris, who is also depicted in the frontispiece portrait after G. F. Watts’s 1870 painting, was one in an extensive series of short sketches by Hubbard of the “Eminent,” including artists, scientists, orators, philosophers, and musicians. When Hubbard and his second wife, the feminist writer Alice Moore Hubbard, died on the Lusitania, he, too, became the subject of posthumous worship by the American Arts and Crafts movement.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872–1906
Letter to Alice Moore (later Alice Dunbar-Nelson), 20 February 1897.
Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964), the African American feminist essayist, lamented that “the black man’s native and original flowers have in this country have been hardened and sharpened into thorns and spurs. In literature we have no artists for art’s sake.” Her phrasing alluded to the ideal of Aestheticism as articulated famously by the British critic, Walter Pater. But just a few years after she published this statement in A Voice from the South (1892), the absence of Black Aesthetes was remedied with the arrival on the American scene of two poets, Alice Moore and Paul Laurence Dunbar. When they married, both were aware of the parallels to an earlier pair of lovers and writers in England, Robert and Elizabeth Browning. At the time, however, when Dunbar crossed the Atlantic in February 1897 to give a series of readings and to be introduced to the British literary community, their engagement was still a secret. Dunbar’s letters to Moore from that five-month-long sojourn are a fascinating record of his meetings with celebrities such as Israel Zangwill, the British Jewish author of Children of the Ghetto (1892), and ardent declarations of love for his fiancée, of whose feelings he still professed himself “uncertain.” In Lyrics of Lowly Life, the volume from which he drew his London readings, he had already celebrated her in a poem titled “Alice,” likening her to the Aesthetic image of the “lily” and describing her soul as “Filled with gems of crystal thought.”
Lyrics of Lowly Life: With an Introduction by W. D. Howells. London: Chapman and Hall, 1897.
Everything changed for Paul Laurence Dunbar when, on 27 June 1896, William Dean Howells used his “Life and Letters” column in Harper’s Weekly to praise Majors and Minors. This 1895 volume of Dunbar’s poetry had seemed fated to remain a “minor” work indeed. But after receiving enthusiastic public support from one of the best known and most highly regarded American writers and critics—from someone who was, moreover, a white man speaking to the white literary establishment—Dunbar found himself a celebrity. His next book was accepted by a “major” publisher and issued in Britain, too, by the distinguished firm of Chapman and Hall—with which no less a figure than George Meredith had long been associated—thereby setting up the possibility for Dunbar to do readings in London to publicize his work. Howells, whom Dunbar had visited in his Far Rockaway, New York home, was happy to cooperate in advancing the success of Lyrics of Lowly Life. He supplied an Introduction for both the American and British editions, in which he talked explicitly about race, calling the poet “the only man of pure African blood” to “feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically” and declaring that “he has produced a work of art.”
Photograph of Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Philadelphia, [c. 1917]. Silver print.
Unlike her first husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935) never traveled to London, but she was an eager recipient of the descriptions of the English literary scene that he sent during his 1897 visit and lecture tour. At the time of his trip abroad, she was already a published author herself, who showed the impress of the British Aesthetic movement on her poetry and prose poems. Indeed, the experimental form of her first collection, Violets and Other Tales (published in Boston in 1895), complemented that of books issued on the other side of the Atlantic by the firm of John Lane, The Bodley Head—volumes such as Nora Hopper’s Ballads in Prose (1894), which moved fluidly across genres, alternating between fiction and lyrical verse. In later years, following her 1902 separation from Dunbar, his death, and her two subsequent marriages (one of which ended in divorce), she became an important figure in the cultural, political, and educational life of Wilmington, Delaware. Through her role as an editor of several periodicals, as well as a teacher at Howard High School, she worked for civil rights, while keeping up her literary career and participating in the Harlem Renaissance. Her interest in transatlantic matters never waned. She became an advocate for United States participation in WWI, publishing in the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis (under the editorship of W. E. B. DuBois), a one-act play, Mine Eyes Have Seen (1918), which showed its African American protagonist gradually deciding to enlist as a soldier and join the war effort in Europe. This photograph of her probably dates from the mid-1920s and was taken at the Sarony Studio in Philadelphia, an offshoot of the New York photography business founded by Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896), famed for his portraits of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and stars of the theatrical world.
Clyde Fitch, 1865–1909
“Clyde Fitch: A Critical Appreciation,” Independent, 15 July 1909.
Among the final volumes issued by Elkin Mathews (1851–1921)—once co-publisher of Wilde’s works in the Nineties—was a little book titled Oscar Wilde: Fragments and Memories (1920), by Martin Birnbaum. In it, Birnbaum drew on his own friendship with Fitch to tell the story of Fitch’s adoration of Wilde. The acquaintance began in the late 1880s, probably during one of Fitch’s earliest visits to London, which occurred in 1888. As Birnbaum reports, “Wilde’s exquisite fairy tales had evidently inspired young Fitch, and one of the stories in the latter’s first published book . . . contains a charming dedication to the author of ‘The Happy Prince.’” Many who knew Wilde abandoned him after the crisis of the 1895 trials; Fitch, it seems, did not: “Fitch always admitted his obligation as an artist to Wilde, continued to look upon him as an inspiration, and was among those who came to Wilde’s aid after his release from prison.” The parallels in their careers were striking. Much as Wilde’s plays were the comedy sensations of the West End, so Fitch’s became enormous and lucrative hits on the New York stage. It was, in fact, in New York, rather than on one of his annual trips to Britain, that Fitch also met Max Beerbohm, then a member of Wilde’s circle, in 1895. Beerbohm—the English Aesthete, caricaturist, essayist, and later drama critic—was accompanying his half-brother, the actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, on a tour of America. According to S. N. Behrman, Beerbohm “greatly liked Fitch, and they became friends.” Still, affection never got in the way of his urge to ridicule, and he produced a series of drawings of Fitch as a dandy, but a rather bulbous and misshapen one.
Frank Harris, 1855–1931
“Had Shakespeare Asked Me…” Pencil and watercolor, .
Blessed with entrepreneurial drive and an ego as big as all outdoors, Frank Harris was, in the minds of many of his British contemporaries, already a caricature of Americanism at its pushing, blustering worst. No matter that Harris, in fact, hailed originally from Galway, Ireland, and had lived for only thirteen years in the United States before settling in London, where he rose by practicing the “New Journalism.” To the English, he would always be the personification of the exuberant and intolerably self-promoting spirit that powered the New World and an occasional figure of fun. This was true even before the brothers George (1847–1912) and Weedon (1854–1919) Grossmith turned him into an actual caricature, through both their words and drawings, in The Diary of a Nobody (1892). It remained, however, for the Aesthete, artist, and master parodist, Max Beerbohm, to finish the job in the mid-1890s. Beerbohm and Harris were both part of Wilde’s circle. The former watched with alarm as, in his view, Wilde became dangerously reckless in his pursuit of pleasure, especially with young working-class men, while the latter claimed not to understand what homosexuality meant, even after Wilde’s arrest and prosecution. At the same time, Harris magnanimously paid tribute to Wilde as a genius, likening him to Shakespeare and asserting that such figures were above the law and deserved to have their way with anyone they liked—a sentiment he expressed by saying, “Had Shakespeare asked me, I would have had to submit.” In his drawing of this absurd scenario, Beerbohm called the bluffer’s bluff.
Contemporary Portraits. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1915. The author’s copy.
The great literary historian Stanley Weintraub, writing in The Playwright and the Pirate, sums up Frank Harris’s contributions to the British theatre this way: “A career as a playwright would end after one significant play—significant primarily because Harris had purchased the scenario from Oscar Wilde at a time [after Wilde’s release from prison in 1897] when Wilde would have sold anything for a few pounds.” The resulting work, Mr. and Mrs. Daventry, was a huge commercial success. After that, however, “Harris’s few later plays fizzled.” In the twentieth century, Harris continued to capitalize upon his acquaintance with notables of the past and, especially, with Wilde. This somewhat unlikely friendship between an aggressive journalist and an Aesthete who looked down on journalists had, no doubt, been sustained by their being, respectively, an Irish American and an Irishman, who shared outsider status in London. Both, moreover, could appreciate the charms of a beautifully turned lie. For his chapter on Wilde in Contemporary Portraits, Harris produced a sort of abridgement of the material that would go into Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1916), a notorious work of fiction in the guise of biography. Even in this shortened memoir, Harris, a famous womanizer, felt obliged to assert, again and again, that he had never found Wilde attractive, insisting “there was something oily and fat about him that repelled me.”
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This exhibition is associated with the conference, "Useful & Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites," which will be held October 7–9, 2010, at the University of Delaware (Newark, DE) and at the Delaware Art Museum and the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate (Wilmington, DE).