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Section 8

Willa Cather, 1873–1947

Willa Sibert Cather.

The Troll Garden. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1905.

To Jessica Feldman in Gender on the Divide (1993), the early short stories of The Troll Garden are evidence of Willa Cather’s preoccupation with French dandyism. Yet they are equally redolent of an obsessive interest in the London art scene and in the ideals of Pre-Raphaelitism and of Aestheticism as practiced in England. A British context frames Cather’s volume from the start, with quotations on the title page and the facing page from, respectively, Charles Kingsley and Christina Rossetti. Cather had been writing about Britain from the mid-1890s onward, while a critic for the Lincoln Courier and other papers, discussing work by Swinburne, Yeats, the Rossettis, and, in a most uncomplimentary manner, Oscar Wilde. After the Wilde trials of 1895, she had rejoiced publicly in this blow to Aestheticism, denouncing it as “the most fatal and dangerous school of art that has ever voiced itself in the English tongue.” By the time, however, of the publication in The Troll Garden of stories such as “Paul’s Case,” with its sympathetic young protagonist from Pittsburgh, who defiantly wears a Wildean carnation in his buttonhole, longs for “artificiality” and “beauty,” and dies rather than live among Philistines, Cather’s attitude had altered. What had caused this shift? One factor was certainly her 1902 trip to London with Isabelle McClung, the woman whom she loved and to whom she dedicated The Troll Garden. As Cather noted in a series of travel columns sent back to the Nebraska State Journal, she finally encountered the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic worlds at firsthand, visiting Frederick Leighton’s house and the studios of G. F. Watts and Edward Burne-Jones. Many critics have speculated that, in the short story “The Marriage of Phaedra,” Cather’s portrait of a Kensington-based painter whose “classical subjects” are “wholly medieval” was inspired by Burne-Jones.

Christopher Morley, 1890–1957

C. D. Morley.

The Eighth Sin. Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, and London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1912.

“Kit” Morley, who later became a journalist, a playwright, a novelist, and a popularizer of modernism for mainstream American readers (especially in his 1939 bestseller, Kitty Foyle), spent his childhood on the campus of Haverford College, where his father was a professor. He “sailed to Oxford in the autumn of 1910” and, according to Steven Rothman, “found it, like Haverford, a paradise.” While there, he wrote and published poetry, with some of his work appearing in the Oxford University literary magazine, the Isis. From the start, he was inspired by late-nineteenth-century British literature of romance and adventure: by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, in particular, along with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, on whom he wrote his undergraduate honors thesis. In his first book, a slim collection of verse published in Oxford and in London, Morley dedicated one of his poems “To R. L. S.” as a tribute to the “magic” of the author “whose books each night/ We used to read by candle-light.” The title of the volume, The Eighth Sin, alluded to a pronouncement by John Keats, who identified the final sin as the “flatter[ing of] oneself into an idea of being a great Poet.” Morley displayed wit and—especially for an American—unexpected diffidence, when introducing his work to the public, for he justified the gathering of his poetry in a book on the grounds that “many of these verses have already been refused . . . by reputable journals . . . [and] that makes them all the more worthy of publication.”

A. E. (Albert Eugene) Gallatin, 1881–1952

Sir William Rothenstein, 1872–1945.

Albert Eugene Gallatin. Pencil, 1913.

The year 1902 saw the publication of two very different American commentaries on the “Beardsley Period” (to use Osbert Burdett’s phrase for the 1890s). One was a satirical novel by Shirley Everton Johnson, The Cult of the Purple Rose: A Phase of Harvard Life, poking fun at Ivy League students who had wished to imitate Beardsley’s art and emulate British Decadents. The second was a short study in the book arts by A. E. Gallatin, titled Aubrey Beardsley as a Designer of Book-Plates (Fittingly, its British publisher was Elkin Mathews, co-founder of the Bodley Head press, which had employed Beardsley in the early Nineties.) Unlike Johnson’s mocking work, Gallatin’s was a serious, even reverential look at Beardsley as “an ‘artist’s artist’” that praised his “wonderful line and perfect arrangement of his masses” and assured the reader that he would be “immortal.” At the time of writing it, Gallatin was only twenty-one-years-old himself—the age of Johnson’s fictional undergraduates—but already a self-confident critic and a new member of the Grolier Club, the New York-based organization of bibliophiles. In later decades, Gallatin would make a complete break with nineteenth-century figurative art, both in his own paintings and in his collecting tastes, to become an advocate of Cubism and of abstract art in general, founding a pioneering New York gallery to display work by everyone from Picasso to Mondrian. Nonetheless, he never ceased to be interested in Britain, which he had visited repeatedly between 1908 and 1913, or to admire Beardsley.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1882–1966

Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Men of Mark. London: Duckworth, and New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1913.

Just as it was Louise Chandler Moulton’s good fortune to be the cousin of the critic E. C. Stedman, so it was Coburn’s to be related to F. Holland Day, the pioneering photographer, who gave Coburn his start. When Day organized an exhibition of American photographers, among those featured in the gallery of London’s Royal Photographic Society in October 1900 was his distant cousin from Boston, the young A. L. Coburn. Soon, Coburn, who had made his first visit to London in 1899, embarked on a transatlantic career. In 1909, he photographed Charles Lang Freer’s collection of Whistler’s art (including the Peacock Room, which had been disassembled and shipped to Freer’s house in Detroit). But Coburn’s most famous work was done in Britain, including his portraits for Men of Mark. That project began in 1904, as he later explained, when he asked the editor of the Metropolitan Magazine in New York for “a list of English authors and artists to photograph during my sojourn in the greatest city in the world.” The resulting volume featured not only his photographs, but commentaries on his subjects. His portrait of Edward Carpenter, which was taken on 28 November 1906 in Coburn’s own “little rooms in Bloomsbury,” was a tribute to one of his political heroes: “I was an admirer of Towards Democracy [1883] for a number of years. . . . Then I heard him lecture, and that same evening I wrote telling him of my great desire to bring my camera to him.” Carpenter, who along with William Morris had been a guiding spirit of the Socialist League, proved an inspirational figure for many progressive Americans. Some responded positively to his radical opposition to the class system; some were buoyed by his support of feminist causes; and some felt their own lives transformed by his open advocacy of what was sometimes called “homogenic love”—same-sex relationships, like Carpenter’s own long-term partnership with a working-class man.

Robert Frost, 1874–1963

Robert Frost.

A Boy’s Will. London: David Nutt, 1913.

“Pan came out of the woods one day,” and there “He stood in the zephyr, pipes in hand.” So began a poem titled “Pan with Us.” Was this the work of some British Aesthete or Decadent, published in the mid-1890s by Elkin Mathews’s and John Lane’s The Bodley Head? No, it was by Robert Frost. Though usually associated with the rural New England landscape and with laconic farmer-figures, Frost spent three years, from 1912 to 1915, living in Britain and moving with his family from Beaconsfield to Gloucestershire. His first book of poetry appeared during that time and contained such verses as this very fin-de-siècle, nostalgic meditation on the disappearance from modern life of Pan’s music. (At the end of the poem, Pan must lay down his pipes of “pagan mirth,” for the world has “found new terms of worth.”) From the start, as Paul Giles has observed, Frost was “a keen reader of Victorian verse,” and his early work showed an unexpected “intertexual relationship with Swinburne’s poetry.” Frost had also been interested in the verse dramas of W. B. Yeats, choosing to produce two of them as school plays in 1910, while he was employed as an English teacher at the Pinkerton Academy in New Hampshire. Little did he know that Yeats would soon return the compliment and number among Frost’s admirers on the British literary scene.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1850–1919

Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Letter to Kate Griffiths, 3 December 1914, and two typescript poems.

Angela Sorby puts it bluntly: “Ella Wheeler Wilcox was quite possibly the most commercially successful and most ridiculed poet in the English-speaking world,” at the turn of the century. She was also a transatlantic purveyor of popular aestheticism and, in Sorby’s words, a believer in its promise of “cross-class” and “cross-gender free play” – sexual liberty, self-realization, and the pursuit of Beauty, open to all. Wilcox’s first volume, Poems of Passion (1883), capitalized on the wave of interest in the British avant-garde accompanying Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of the U. S. (itself an effort to profit from the American production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, which satirized him). Attacked in the press as a woman “whose verses out-Swinburne Swinburne,” Wilcox laughed all the way to the bank, while remaining a serious devotee of Algernon Swinburne, the close associate of D. G. Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites. Her career proved a long one, outlasting the American enthusiasm for Aesthetes and Decadents that ended with the 1890s. Wilcox, who was born in Wisconsin, later moved to Connecticut. From there she traveled often to London, beginning with her 1901 trip, made at the behest of a New York newspaper editor, to record (as she wrote in her 1919 memoir, The Worlds and I) “an American poet’s impression of a royal funeral,” following the death of Queen Victoria. Her visits to Britain led to close friendships, including one with a much younger Englishwoman named Kate Griffiths, whom she advised in matters of the heart. She also shared with Griffiths her new poems, such as the remarkably modern, if not modernist, ones occasioned by the outbreak of WWI – stark, unflinching, and highly political verses that seemed to anticipate the work of the British soldier-poets.

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).

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