Edgar Saltus: The Dean of Decadence–Part one

from Aimée Crocker Queen of Bohemia

by K.M.C. Taylor

Edgar Saltus, near perfection

New York’s The Evening World reported mid-marriage that Mrs. Aimée Crocker Gillig was taking the Peter Townsend Barlow house at 1 Madison Avenue for the winter and spring of 1894. Her husband Harry was circumnavigating the globe at the time with some pals from the Bohemian Club. The World noted that, “during her present sojourn in New York she is receiving much attention from Edgar Saltus, the novelist.”

Aimée wrote of a love affair with Saltus, who was then a brilliant, if menacing, literary star in her 1936 memoirs. It would be the most glowing romance in her recollections:

He was the nearest in perfection to sheer physical beauty I have ever had the privilege of knowing. I do not merely mean sensuously attractive. He was radiant of power and will and dash and excitement and pithy wit and all that women hope to find in the ideal male. I met him…at a dinner party given by Roosevelt Schuyler. It was as though I walked innocently into a spider’s web, and as though the spider were a polished, ironic, master-mind who knew every trick of fascinating women, and who spun around me an invisible web of magic gauze that ensnared me and tangled me up in its very comfortable tissue. We were off, so to speak. For three years I lived and thought and had heartbeat only in the sunshine of Edgar Saltus. He glittered beside me in Paris, in London, in Central Europe, my cavalier, my Lancelot, my Don Juan, my Faustus. I could bore you and please myself with a recollection of Lake Como which is an idyll that only Stendhal… or Saltus… could make worthy of print.

The Edgar Saltus of the 1880s was a one-man avant-garde movement. Author of dyspeptic novels, historian of Roman and Russian terror and debauchery and a populizer of “theoretical” pessimism, Saltus is the one American writer of the fin de siècle who most deserves a place in the decadent tradition. He not only built his work around decadent themes and subject matter, but he also wrote in what has come to be called the “style of decadence,” fixing all his exotic erudition and curious interests in jeweled phrases to make a glittering surface disguise for the emptiness within. Twenty-first century critic Jason DeBoer calls Edgar Saltus a forgotten genius of American letters who, “possessed some of the decadent florid imagery of Huysmans, the macabre sensibility of Bierce and Poe, the stylistic perfection of Flaubert, and the piercing wit of Wilde.”

Writer Elbert Hubbard once described Edgar Saltus as “the best writer in America — with a few insignificant exceptions.” Henry Miller was such a fan that he included the masterpiece Imperial Purple among the hundred books that most influenced him. Along with Hamsun’s Mysteries and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Saltus’s Imperial Purple was one of a handful of books that Miller periodically reread.

Edgar Evertson Saltus was born in New York City on the 8th of October, 1855, to parents with a measure of wealth (his grandfather had acquired a vast area of iron-rich land around Lake Placid). His privileges were many. Old Dutch family origins, Yale, Columbia Law, a Grace Church wedding to the daughter of a J.P. Morgan partner.

Brilliant brother Francis Saltus Saltus

Edgar Saltus’s father, Francis Henry Saltus, was an inventor best known for bringing into being the first rifled steel cannon ever made. For this he was decorated by almost all the crowned heads of Europe. Edgar’s older half-brother, Francis Saltus Saltus, was a prolific poet who died young and was once praised as an “American Baudelaire.” According to Edgar, brother Francis could, “scribble an ode to the coloratura Adelina Patti in four languages within an hour. He could write an opera with one hand while composing sonnets with the other.” The Brothers Saltus adopted the dandified, aloof persona of the æsthete — distanced from the world, bored by its pretensions. They were leaders of a group of Bohemians in New York, who met at Billy Moulds’ bar in Manhattan’s University Place, drank absinthe and had a taste for anything and everything exotic.

Between Yale and Columbia Law School, Saltus traveled through Europe and came into contact with a number of leading figures in literature and philosophy. While in Paris studying at the Sorbonne, he fell under the spell of French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac and met writers Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine. In England, Edgar befriended Oscar Wilde, just as Wilde was building the celebrity that would make him the central figure of decadence in England. His wanderjahr at Heidelberg and Munich included meetings with Eduard von Hartmann, chief disciple of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Balzac would be the inspiration for his first book, a biography. Schopenhauer and Hartmann would inspire several books and shape his world view for the rest of his tempestuous life.

Though he attained a doctorate of law from Columbia University, it was a career path he never pursued. Money was of little importance to Edgar; to be free of rules and routine was his main goal. A life of a solitary, probing, and belligerent writer better suited him. He began his career, after his penetrating study of Balzac, with a pair of somber and scholarly diatribes The Philosophy of Disenchantment and The Anatomy of Negation which took his readers on a grand tour along the rocky terrain of pessimism.

Two-thirds of The Philosophy of Disenchantment (1885) is allotted to Schopenhauer, with the remainder devoted to an exposition of the teachings of Hartmann and a final essay, “Is Life an Affliction?” Edgar answers in the affirmative. “To him who commiserates with all mankind, and sympathizes with everything that is, life never appears otherwise than as an immense and terrible affliction,” wrote Saltus.

The Anatomy of Negation (1889) is a labor of love and testimony that Saltus’s sympathies lie with the iconoclasts through the centuries. In the chapter entitled, “The Convulsions of the Church,” a brief history of Christianity, he writes of Jesus, “He was the most entrancing of nihilists but no innovator.” This book ends with a few paragraphs of summary that illuminates Saltus’s philosophical conclusions drawn from his thorough study of world religions:

There is no help there, nor is there any elsewhere. The Orient is asleep in the ashes of her gods. The star of Ormuzd has burned out in the skies. On the banks of her sacred seas, Greece, hushed for evermore, rests on the divine limbs of her white immortals. In the sepulcher of the pale Nazarene, humanity guards its last divinity. Every promise is unfulfilled. There is no light save perchance in death. One torture more, one more throb of the heart, and after it nothing. The grave opens, a little flesh falls in, and the weeds of forgetfulness which soon hide the tomb grow eternally above its vanities. And still the voice of the living, of the just and of the unjust, of kings, of felons and of beasts, will be raised unsilenced, until humanity, unsatisfied as before and yet impatient for the peace which life has disturbed, is tossed at last, with its shattered globe and forgotten gods, to fertilize the furrows of space where worlds ferment.

On this vista the curtain may be drawn. Neither poet nor seer can look beyond. Nature, who is unconscious in her immorality, entrancing in her beauty, savage in her cruelty, imperial in her prodigality, and appalling in her convulsions, is not only deaf, but dumb. There is no answer to any appeal. The best we can do, the best that has ever been done, is to recognize the implacability of the laws that rule the universe, and contemplate as calmly as we can the nothingness from which we are come and into which we shall all disappear. The one consolation we hold, though it is one which may be illusory too, consists in the belief that when death comes, fear and hope are at an end. Then wonder ceases; the insoluble no longer perplexes; space is lost; the infinite is black; the farce is done.

With these two striking works, Saltus established his position as the foremost literary exponent of pessimism in America, and a worthy disciple of Schopenhauer. Broom, an international magazine of the Arts published in New York, London and Rome called The Philosophy of Disenchantment and The Anatomy of Negation, “two compact readable and scholarly resumes of pessimism and of skepticism — perhaps the best handbooks ever published on these subjects.” A critic in The Argus referred to Saltus as “the prose laureate of pessimism.” His pessimism came in part from his literary masters but in part also from a temperament which steadily followed its own impulses and arrived at its own destinations. The exact sources, biographical or otherwise, for the charmed and charming Edgar Saltus’s deep sense of ennui and pessimism are difficult to discern.

Saltus wrote books about Balzac, Schopenhauer and Hartmann

Saltus adhered to a form of pessimism known as “theoretic” pessimism. He claimed that it was at its fundamental level Buddhism stripped of its Eastern mythology and ritualistic practices. Detachment and indifference to things of the world must be cultivated and, most important, our cravings, our wills, must be overcome in order to obtain peace. Since the world is illusory and corrupt, the desires of humankind lead only to suffering. Desire is actually the state of unhappiness, and the satisfaction of desire is therefore merely the temporary removal of pain.

Some promoters of theoretic or “scientific” pessimism at the time recommended a type of resignation and self denial in the form of asceticism and absolute chastity to be a remedy for the misery of life. Were chastity universal, it would drain the source of humanity, and pain would disappear is the theory. Saltus, taking cues from Schopenhauer, believed that the Arts can be a helpful analgesic in alleviating inevitable suffering in life. Art became the religion of the pessimists, and artists were seen as priests and prophets guiding Bohemian seekers to an alternate, more beautiful and palpable reality.

Literary Genius

With his sharp, polished, jewel-encrusted dagger, Saltus carved out thirty odd books whose range from translation through fiction, literary criticism and historical panoramas to philosophy proclaims the author a versatile talent in possession of a well-digested general culture. At the peak of his popularity he was a rock star. In letters that he wrote to a friend he proclaimed, “My works are read with such admiration, that the members are crazy to get a picture of me, of any kind, nature, or description… My fame is spreading like a conflagration, and not in arithmetical ratio either, but in geometric or even cubic.” Saltus marveled that an admirer, “sent his son and nephew here, only that these young people may in their old age be able to boast that they had seen and spoken to me.”

Saltus’s nearest literary relative is fellow American Edgar Allan Poe. Like the macabre Poe, blood runs across Saltus’s pages. Gore and booty are principal themes. Rapes and incest abound. He kills more people than Caligula killed during the whole course of his bloody reign. Murders, suicides, and other forms of sudden death flash their sensations across his pages. The rare poisons of rafflesia, muscarine, and orsere are introduced in his fictions. He devotes an essay to toxicology. Daggers with blades like needles, pistols, drownings, asphyxiations, play their roles. In one book there is a crucifixion. While he does sometimes produce shudders in his readers, beauty and grandeur struts supreme through the vast horrors and sinister themes.

Mr. Incoul’s Misadventure, Saltus’s first novel, is also considered the best of his many fictions. This piquant novel, the first of sixteen, observes an amoral code whereby murder and adultery are far less heinous than cheating at cards. His “antitheism” appears in comic form when character Lenox Leigh imagines the only terms under which he might wish to go on living: “If I had an ambition it would be a different matter. If I could be a pretty woman up to thirty, a cardinal up to fifty, and after that the Anti-Christ, it might be worthwhile.”

His talent for clever phraseology has often been noted. There are no neutral tints in Saltus’s tapestries. Every word evokes an image, a strange, bizarre image, often a complication of images. He is never afraid of the colloquial, never afraid of slang, and he often weaves lovely patterns with obsolete or technical words. Literary critic Gorham Munson wrote, “No other American writer cultivates sensuous appeals so much as Saltus. Behind the majority of his sentences Lesbian lutes play; from them perfumes rise, out of them colors stare or flash.” Saltus explained his approach:

It may be noted that in literature only three things count, style, style polished, style repolished; of these imagination and the art of transition aid, but do not enhance. As for style, it may be defined as the sorcery of syllables, the fall of sentences, the use of the exact term, the pursuit of a repetition even unto the thirtieth and fortieth line. Grammar is an adjunct but not an obligation. No grammarian ever wrote a thing that was fit to read.

Imperial Purple (1892), the high-tide of Saltus’s peculiar genius, drew heavily from the histories of Suetonius and Tacitus to create a modern portrait of the bloody pageantry of Rome, from the majestic Julius Caesar to Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, the wicked Agrippina, Claudius and Nero, down to the freakish Heliogabalus. Nearly thirty years later, Saltus tackled the decadence of Royal Russia in The Imperial Orgy.

In writing the impressionistic histories of the Caesars and the Tsars, Saltus displays a consummate ability to reduce whole libraries of yawns into two hundred pages of compact excitement. He reveled in the dark side of history and was at his lyric best when he brought the violence and eroticism of the past back to life. Saltus yearned for the great age of decadence represented by Rome in her decline as an alternative to the modernity of the late 19th century. He wrote, “To have passed down again through a world still young — a world beautiful, ornate, unutilitarian; a world to which trams, advertisements and telegraph poles had not yet come; a world that still had illusions, myths and mysteries; one in which religion and poetry went hand in hand — a world without newspapers, hypocrisy and cant.”

Saltus later admitted, “I may fairly lay claim to be haunted by antiquity. If I was not at the siege of Troy, no one will convince me that I did not ride in wide chariots over the white roads of Greece, that I did not eat the clitoris of tigresses with Caligula, and assist with Heliogabalus at the wedding of the Sun and Moon.”

Saltus reserved his most outrageous material for history rather than fiction. Under the guise of historical documentation it was possible to discuss matters still too delicate for fictional handling. Saltus defended his subject matter, “The lives of all of them are horrible, yet analyze the horrible and you find sublime.”

On the night before the election of 1920, future President Warren Harding sat up until after midnight to read Imperial Purple for the fourth time.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854–1900) by Elliott and Fry, 1881

Oscar Wilde

Saltus first met Oscar Wilde at Delmonico’s in New York, shortly after he told local Customs that he had nothing to declare but his genius. In 1890 they met again at a gathering at the home of Lord Francis Hope, owner of the famous Hope diamond. When Oscar admired a painting of Salomé, Princess of Judæa, as she appeared in Flaubert’s Hérodias, he vowed to write a masterpiece about the biblical temptress who demanded the head of John the Baptist. Saltus in turn abandoned plans to write a history of Byzantium to write about would be trollup Mary Magdalen. “We will pursue the wantons together,” he retorted. Edgar dressed up the traditional courtesan, in the splendors of purple and gold and perfumed her with many quaint dangerous essences considerably more exciting than her later career.

When Mary Magdalen: A Chronicle appeared in 1891, Oscar hailed it as “… a strange book, so pessimistic, so poisonous and so perfect.” Saltus claimed that Wilde’s Salomé, “awoke a tempest that blew through artistic Europe…” He went to a reading before it was squelched by censors in petticoats at the Metropolitan Opera House and declared it a masterwork of wit and humour. He assured Oscar that the last line in Salomé made him shudder.

Saltus wrote about Wilde in the essay Oscar Wilde: An Idler’s Impression (1917). Wilde and Saltus, with a few congenial men, spent many an evening at the popular Café Royal on Regent Street in Piccadilly, London. There was much in the mental companionship of Saltus and Wilde which sharpened and stimulated each, making their conversation a battle-ground of aphorisms and epigrams. Saltus did think that the Irish æsthete was somewhat overpraised as a writer. Edgar referred to Wilde as a three decanter man who, “was a third rate poet who occasionally rose to the second class but not once to the first.” He further thought Wilde was rather sloppy in prose. As a conversationalist, however, Wilde had no peers according to Saltus. “He talked infinitely better than he wrote… He exuded wit and waded in it with a serenity that was disconcerting… in his talk he was lord and more — sultan, pontifex maximus… In talk he blinded and it is the subsiding wonder of it that his plays contain.” He later wrote, “…in the man was a mind, and in that mind a mine of gems more brilliant than any which the world has seen since the dazzling days of Aristophanes…” Aimée Crocker easily and comfortably matched wits with both of these genius men of letters.

An autographed picture from Wilde to his friend Edgar Saltus wrote, “Friendship is more tragic than love. It lasts longer.”

Edgar Saltus Dean of Decadence — Part two

Saltus meets Aimée Crocker. His spiritual awakening.

(Coming soon)

Edgar Saltus books (click images for link to free pdf)