In the murky and uncertain era of American letters between the mid-1880s and the mid-Nineties there arose and declined the equally murky and uncertain talent of Edgar Saltus. True, Saltus continued for another twenty-five years after that to turn out novels (his Daughters of the Rich was even made into one of the early movies), together with verse, essays, and a good deal of magazine hack work. But from about 1900 on, when anything of his appeared, newspaper reviewers tended to treat him as a relic out of the past, referring indulgently to the time, now no more, when the wickedness of both his writings and his doings had made his name something of a perfumed scandal. It was only after his death in 1921 that the Village avant-gardists awoke to the possibility that in Edgar Saltus they may have had a kind of spiritual precursor.
But the literary life of the Twenties was essentially present-minded; the revival of interest in Saltus’s works was both mild and brief. There may have been Wildean and Huysmansesque flashes—or rather flickers—in those works, and efforts to be shocking and perverse, but the efforts were never quite sustained or purposeful enough to detach them from their time and circumstances—from the miasmas of the American Gilded Age.
Claire Sprague’s sensitive, elegant little book is quite above making claims—humorless and self-serving as such claims often are—for a writer’s hitherto unrecognized greatness; nor, on the other hand, does it make of its subject (whose foibles are all too easy a target) a straw man. Nor, indeed, is Mrs. Sprague’s alternative simply to file Edgar Saltus away for the archives of American Lit. She takes the truly difficult course; she makes of Saltus a problem. The problem is, as she puts it, “the always interesting case of disparity between promise and achievement.” Giving particularity to such a case, and in a writer located at a time generally regarded as an arid one for the literary life, is to pose a question “sufficiently textured to deserve our attention.” The occasion may be a modest one, but is not for that reason the less demanding, and it was hardly to be hoped that a present-day critic could have risen to it quite so beautifully.
It cannot be said that Saltus’s muse was racked by fiery torments. More accurately, it was congested by intermittent and faintly jaundiced discontents. The circumstances of Edgar Saltus’s emergence were those incident to upper-class New York life: old Dutch family origins; St. Paul’s, Yale, Columbia Law, and a wanderjahr at Heidelberg in the Seventies; a Grace Church wedding in 1883 to the daughter of a Morgan partner, all of which should have meant certain “advantages,” and doubtless did. But the war of old and new money in the New York of the Eighties was making “culture” and all its agencies—the galleries, the Opera, the Symphony, and so on—“pawns in the game of …