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A Pinch of Saltus

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 conspicuous consumption.” Saltus perceived this, more or less, though how it applied to him and to the problem of an audience was only partially apparent. His training demanded sociality, his art demanded rigor; he wanted to please, and he wanted to be obstinate. He could never quite summon the will to combine these impulses into a true artistic resource.

Still, the young Saltus was not so bemused as to avoid reaching out for a philosophic system of sorts. Of the several he might have chosen, the one he found most appropriate was the pessimism of Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, which he had encountered while at Heidelberg. In this proto-existentialist attitude Saltus found a way, up to a point, of accounting for boredom, nausea, and unfulfillment amid the contemporary sophistries of rationalism and progress. Two of his earliest books were on this subject, and inasmuch as English translations of neither Schopenhauer nor Hartmann had as yet been completed when they appeared, Saltus must be regarded—Mencken to the contrary notwithstanding—as a unique exponent in the America of his time. But however that may be, there at least seems to be in Saltus’s career, and in those of a significant number of his artistic contemporaries, enough evidence of endemic despair to modify and perhaps fatally undermine Van Wyck Brooks’s picture of an “Age of Confidence.” And related to Saltus’s preoccupation with philosophic pessimism is the theme, luridly as he may have handled it, of disenchantment and disillusion in love that permeates virtually all his novels.

Whatever else may have been said of him in his time, Saltus was known as a “stylist,” and he himself wrote that “in literature only three things count: style, style polished, style repolished.” The terms “style” and “stylist,” as Mrs. Sprague perceptively reminds us, no longer go together. We no longer say of a writer, “He is a stylist,” and style itself is simply “a way of writing that we decide is a good one.” But there was a time, as she also points out, when this could hardly be taken for granted; a great deal more was at stake in the 1890s. The movement for precision, in symbol as well as image, was central to the revolution in the management of language that had already begun in France and was then moving into England. In America it was but barely sensed. The concreteness rather than the abstractness of words—their tonal, tactile, visual, and rhythmic values—was not to be apprehended, the problem itself being then still largely new, without a good deal of fiddling.

At any rate, the mot quoted above about “style polished” is actually part of a passage on writing in which Saltus shows a concern for craftsmanship which is not only rare for the Nineties but whose perceptions clearly prefigure those of Stein and Hemingway a generation later. “He could be bare; he could be baroque.” (As, indeed, could Flaubert, who was one of his models; Madame Bovary and Salammbô did come from the same workshop.) Here, for example, is Saltus’s comment on the coup of the matador Guerrita:

A second and the bull would be upon him. Yet in that second the stick of steel would flash, straight over the lowered horns it would sweep, sting down through the parting flesh, touch the seat of life and drop the brute dead in his tracks.

Or, à rebours, this:

In New York, a few years ago, a death occurred which a jewelled snake, resting for a second on a glass of champagne, is believed to have occasioned. The belief may be unfounded, yet the possibilities in it are splendidly ornate.

My own favorite is a reference to “potage crème d’amande“:

A spoonful or two of that passing into emptiness is like a rug of silk thrown on a naked floor.

Or, finally, this sensuous landscape of the deserted Côte des Basques at Biarritz:

…in the distance are the mountains curving and melting in the haze; below, the ocean, spangled at the edges, is of a milky blue. Seen from the shore, the sea has the color of absinthe, an opalescent green, entangled and fringed with films of white, here the mountains escape in the perspective, and as the sun sinks the cliffs glitter. At times the sky is decked with little clouds that dwindle and fade into spirals of pink; at others great masses rise sheer against the horizon, as might the bastions of Titan homes; and again are gigantic cathedrals, their spires lost in azure, their turrets swooning in excesses of vermilion grace. The only sound is from the waves, but few come to listen.

Saltus’s preoccupation with antithesis and paradox, on the other hand, went beyond the stylistic. It was a way of organizing experience, one that had first formed an aspect of the Romantic sensibility, flourished through the Decadence, and that remains with us still. But with Saltus, the jarring disharmony of things becomes obsessive. Throughout his novels and “histories” love and beauty are tracked by crime, monstrosity, and deception with a kind of baneful pertinacity. It is in the frisson that felicity and delusion, the grand and the ghastly, pleasure and pain are brought together: “In history as in romance,” he wrote, “it is the shudder that tells.”

As a critic Saltus did not amount to much, though as an observer and bearer of literary news from abroad he served a useful function similar to that performed by his contemporaries James Huneker, Vance Thompson, and Percival Pollard. He knew the French writers and reported their doings in his Collier’s column, and he had a good idea what it was that the American literary artist needed and lacked. He needed an adequate audience, adequately instructed.

And yet one must conclude—as I believe Mrs. Sprague, with a certain decent indirection, herself does—that Edgar Saltus was no better than the audience he had, and certainly not equal to the one he wanted. For the disaffected artist sure of his ground, other possibilities did exist. One was that of the poète maudit, difficult but workable; another was that of the expatriate. Saltus was capable of choosing neither. What, then, was he to give his audience? The contrived, grotesque melodrama of his novels, with all their paraphernalia of poisons, stilettos, incest, and infidelity, was symptomatic. Their very contortedness was a betrayal of illusions he never outgrew; their author really did, after all, want to believe in his golden girls and lads.

The values of the culture in which he functioned were specious and he knew it, but the fashioning of an alternative sensibility—such as that of either Wilde or James, both of whom he also knew—was a task to which neither his resources nor his fortitude was equal. And so it was that for all his little pretensions, few of which he had the will to brazen the whole way through, virtually nothing he produced can be seen as more than half-hearted and half-realized.

But in Claire Sprague’s book the problem is solved, as nicely as this particular one ever can be, and with infinitely more finesse than you will find in any previous effort to understand this fascinating and exasperating figure. Her study is both a gem of critical intelligence and a triumph of humane justice. In it, she has made major observations about art, style, the times and their constraints, and all within the exquisite discipline that is required in discussing a minor talent.

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