Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Anticipating Aestheticism: The Dynamics of Reading and Reception in Poe

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Anticipating Aestheticism: The Dynamics of Reading and Reception in Poe

Article excerpt

"The Oval Portrait" and "The Fall of the House of Usher", two of Edgar Allan Poe's best-known and most paradigmatic short stories, can serve as key case studies helping us both to understand his peculiar vision of aestheticism and also to begin to explore the peculiar dynamics involved in the international transmission and circulation of this aesthetic vision through the nineteenth century.

A haunted brotherhood: the reception and transmission of aesthetic vision

Despite its surface celebrations of idiosyncrasy, eccentricity, or expressive originality, aestheticism developed as a curiously international phenomenon, re-emerging in strikingly similar form in the works and lives of authors across a wide range of nations, cultures, and historical periods. One of the defining aspects of this international movement, then, involves its focus on the mystery of this pattern of aesthetic influence or transmission. The aesthetic vision seems, in fact, to center less on the production of unique, powerful, compelling works of art than on their reception - where reception is seen as a complex, half-creative, semi-involuntary process by which a preexisting form or voice or mode of expression becomes internalized and repeated across distances of time or space. Not direct or simply passive, this aesthetic mode of absorbed and absorptive reading operates through projection as much as through reception, and through distancing as well as identification. For late-nineteenth-century French Decadents as for writers associated with British Aestheticism, this process is frequently described as one of textual contagion - where the transmission of an aesthetic vision or stance is understood by analogy to the communication of an infectious disease. In the earlier, foundational works of Poe, as in his followers, aesthetic influence is often imagined as a form of haunting - a return of something that had been repressed. And to be powerfully haunted in this way is to accede to a place in the line of a timeless, international aesthetic brotherhood.

Examining Poe' s role as a founding figure whose works haunted the leading writers and artists in several successive waves of nineteenth-century aestheticism, this essay is framed by a simple, general recognition of the lines of dissemination by which his influence was transmitted across cultures and periods. But its primary emphasis is on analysis of one specific aspect of this transmitted vision: many of Poe's most influential short stories are about the dynamics of aesthetic reception, playing out in their plots and narrative structure a complex vision of the process of reading, transmission, or influence that would be taken up by a line of later artists and writers. This new look at some key elements in Poe's aesthetic and critical theory highlights the uncanny combination of foreignness and familiarity in what Poe's model offered first to his antebellum American contemporaries (notably Nathaniel Hawthorne); then to later European definers of aestheticism (notably Charles Baudelaire and Joris-Karl Huysmans in France, and Oscar Wilde in England); and finally to leading figures in the movements of Aestheticism and Decadence that emerged in America at the turn of the twentieth century.

In a 1 904 essay, Henry James described aestheticism to Americans as "a queer high-flavored fruit from overseas, grown under another sun than ours, passed round and solemnly partaken of at banquets organized to try it, but not found on the whole really to agree with us".1 As the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells wrote of aestheticism along similar lines - picturing it as a threat to native ways of writing and thinking, taken up only by a "sickly colony, transplanted from the mother asphalt of Paris". And this defensive vision quickly coalesced into the standard literary-historical account: Aestheticism and Decadence, related movements that insisted on the autonomy of art, reveling in the bizarre, the artificial, the perverse, and the arcane, came to be viewed as distinctly European phenomena speaking for anxieties of degeneracy very much specific to the cultural moment in fìn-de-siècle England and France. …

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