Decadence and Despair in New York Fiction
The literary-art Decadent movement was a manifestation of fin de siècle European society in the late 19th century, which rejected mainstream codes and bourgeois lifestyle, instead expressing a sense of widespread moral decay and social degeneracy that was perceived to be sweeping across the continent. This movement found heirs in the literary output of certain New York writers who expressed a similar awareness of the corruption of American society and a disenchantment with modern existence. These decadent writers often expressed their social ennui in an elaborate, self-consciously literary style that married a lofty surface aestheticism with a subtext of pessimism. Relishing the use of florid, artificially archaic language and often harbouring a cynical world view, one of the defining features of the decadent novel is a weary, disenchanted protagonist who is involved in a morbidly perverse, bizarre, exotic or grotesquely immoral narrative.
Though not as well known as his European antecedents, but heavily influenced by the scabrous wit of Oscar Wilde, who remarked that his work was ‘so pessimistic, so poisonous, and so perfect’, Edgar Saltus’ humorous, satirical novels about New York, were some of the finest early examples of a Decadent sensibility in the city. One of the greatest and most notable of the Decadent New York novels is F Scott Fitzgerald’s prohibition-era masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), which depicts the moral corruption of the New York aristocracy. Fitgerald's novel The Beautiful and Damned (1922) is also an evocative depiction of decadence and despair in the Jazz Age.
An enthusiast and biographer of the French decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud and known for his lavish, exuberant use of language and stories about decadent lifestyles, Edmund White is a worthy modern successor of the New York Decadent tradition. Openly gay, White’s novels and plays often feature themes of love and death, focusing on brazen, explicitly open homosexual subject matters in post-war American society. In his moving, stream of consciousness travelogue The Flaneur (2000), White takes us on a time-spanning jaunt through the paved streets of a decadent, hedonistic Paris through the ages, and in his autobiographical memoir City Boy (2009), he recounts cultural and sexual life in the 1960’s and 1970s from the Stonewall riots in 1969 to the tumultuous economic crisis, crumbling crime riddled streets and the spectre of AIDS in the 1980’s. His latest novel Jack Holmes and His Friend (2012) is about the sexual and romantic exploits of a young gay man and his friendships in New York. Starting in the 1950s, the novel moves from the exuberant decadence of the 1970’s to the sudden shock of the AIDS epidemic.
Other modern American novels which engage with the tradition of Decadent art include Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire Of The Vanities (1987), a satire about racism, politics and power during the Wall Street collapse, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), Hubert Selby Jr.’s fractured vignettes of prostitutes, hoodlums and transvestites living in the ruined back alley streets of a decadent, corrupt and violent New York in the 1950’s, and Jay McInerney’s cautionary parable of hedonism, capitalism and the American Dream in Bright Lights, Big City. (1984).