Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Nineteenth-Century Literature in Transition: The 1890s

Dustin Friedman, Kristin Mahoney

The 1890s were not very far in the rearview mirror when Holbrook Jackson published The Eighteen-Nineties: A Review of Art and Ideas at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (1913), the first of many early twentieth-century attempts to capture the spirit of the nineteenth century’s tumultuous final decade. Unlike later works that often conflated decadence and the fin de siècle, Jackson was unique in his embrace of the era’s many contradictory movements motivated by what he called the “restless spirit of the time.” He argued that the period’s historical self-consciousness, its preoccupation with issues of time and change, its cosmopolitan openness as well as its nationalistic retrenchment made this a particularly “electric” epoch, calling it the “decade of a thousand ‘movements.’”

Our collection, Nineteenth-Century Literature in Transition: The 1890s, builds upon the foundation provided by Jackson by highlighting the period’s complexities and showing how its aesthetic, political, and ideological landscapes defy simplistic categorizations. Seeking to expand our sense of the 1890s, we worked to explore new dimensions and methodologies in fin-de-siècle studies and consider how such work might give us a richer sense of this electric era. Contributors discuss texts by both familiar and unfamiliar figures to challenge prevailing assumptions about the period’s defining features, urging readers to reconsider the significance of this pivotal decade and the light it sheds on concerns that continue to preoccupy us in the present day, issues such as sexual and gender politics, transnational contact, the changing nature of religious belief, the role that performance plays in our lives, the impact of human activities on the environment, and how new technologies might alter our relationship to the past.

We placed a great deal of emphasis, as we solicited contributions for the collection, on questions of race, empire, and global circulation. The Nineteenth Century Literature in Transition series is meant to capture the spirit of the most exciting work happening in the field now and, at the same time, point toward possible futures for the field. When we think about what we might like fin-de-siècle studies (as well as the broader field of Victorian studies) to look like moving forward, we are hoping first and foremost for a more porous and transnational approach to the period, an approach that pushes beyond the national boundaries that for so long curtailed work in this area. In this sense, we conceptualized the collection in conversation with Amy Wong, Ronjaunee Chatterjee, and Alicia Christoff’s call to “undiscipline” Victorian studies by exploding its limited geographic imaginary. Our hope is that the essays in this collection on India, China, Japan, and Hawai’i in the 1890s, comparative religion, and fin-de-siècle ideas about race, empire, and cosmopolitanism will indicate what is to be gained when we no longer stage our approach to period in terms of Britishness and Eurocentrism. The essays in the collection reflect the fact that the 1890s were a particularly open moment in terms of the circulation of culture. Emily Harrington, for example, discusses how the form of the nocturne was altered and revised when practiced by the Indigenous Canadian poet E. Pauline Johnson and by Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet writing in the US, and Sebastian Lecourt discusses the widespread popularity of comparative religious thought at the end of the century. Lindsay Wilhelm shows us how Anglo-American visions of the dandy traveled across the Pacific, but she also stresses that these imported ideas were in conversation with indigenous visions of dandyism and decadence in Hawai’i. Her essay along with Sukanya Banerjee’s chapter on Indian author O. Chandumenon’s realist novel Indulekha (1889-90) emphasize how our sense of literary history might be enriched when we stop centering England. We are also particularly excited about how the chapters in this volume highlight the political complexities of this period. Stefano Evangelista’s chapter on literary treatments of East Asia at the fin de siècle, for example, allows for the fact that many of the works he discusses at once enact orientalism and cosmopolitanism, simultaneously exhibiting essentialist attitudes and deep openness and curiosity about other nations and cultures. Zarena Aslami thinks of the 1890s as hinge years when the category of the human and the concept of race were under pressure during a period of imperialist expansion. These works operate, we hope, as models for what our field might be if we continue to think in transnational terms and in conversation with fields such as Black studies and Asian studies.

We are hoping the collection will also point to new ways of seeing sexuality and gender at the fin de siècle. The “Naughty Nineties,” as they have been frequently dubbed, were marked by challenges to traditional gender and sexual norms. The liberated New Woman and the stylishly perverse male decadent, epitomized by Oscar Wilde, have become symbols of the era’s sexual revolution, especially as feminist and queer criticism gained traction in the academic world in the closing decades of the twentieth century. However, several of our authors suggest that these dominant figures have skewed our understanding of the era. Alex Murray argues that the 1890s were just as conservative and patriotic as they were subversive and cosmopolitan, while Simon Joyce challenges the idea that Wilde’s starkly hierarchical and patriarchal model of male same-sex relations epitomized the era’s understanding of alternative gender and sexual identities, arguing instead that the politically radical utopian socialist Edward Carpenter’s democratic, feminist, non-binary model was much more cutting edge. Diana Maltz similarly turns to Carpenter and his influence on lesser-known New Woman novelists to show how these thinkers were just as devoted to socialism as they were to feminism. These contributions make it clear that the era’s sexual and gender politics were multifarious, resisting reductive classifications.

Our volume also emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches that explore the intersections between nineteenth-century literary studies and various other fields. Our contributors challenge present-day academic divisions, pointing out that during the fin de siècle, when many modern disciplines were forming, such divisions were considerably less pronounced. For instance, Anne Stiles asks us to reconsider the relationship between science and religion during this era, arguing that the coexistence of pseudoscience, the occult, and traditional religious devotion speaks to the fact that these were complementary rather than antagonistic forces. Sebastian Lecourt also discusses the religious dimension of the 1890s, showing how mainstream interest in comparative religion contributed to the development of popular ecumenicalism. Adam Alston examines decadent drama from a Performance Studies perspective, revealing theater’s under-acknowledged impact on the Decadent Movement. Emily Harrington and Ana Parejo-Vadillo consider the intersections of nature, art, and gender in the nocturne genre and women’s nature poetry, respectively, highlighting their relevance to the discourse on anthropogenic climate change. Similarly, Elizabeth Carolyn Miller and Dennis Denisoff both explore how decadent writing provides us with the means for understanding the environment, with Miller discussing how Wilde’s works make the inhuman magnitude of a post-Darwinian vision of nature comprehensible through miniaturization, and Denisoff explaining how the genre of “weird fiction” encourages a sense of awe and acceptance of uncertainty in the face of the natural world’s power. Such interdisciplinary accounts underscore the underexplored relevance of the 1890s to many of the concerns of our own present day.

We wanted to highlight as well how new methodologies might give us a sharper sense of this period. In considering the impact of recent methods on the practice of fin-de-siècle studies, we thought a great deal about how projects in the digital humanities, such as The Yellow Nineties Online, The Modernist Journals Project, and the digitization of Michael Field’s diaries, have been particularly beneficial for rethinking the turn of the century. With this in mind, we invited contributions by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra on the remediation of little magazines on Yellow Nineties 2.0 (previously The Yellow Nineties Online) and by Rebecca Mitchell on how emerging digital protocols might make the visual culture of the 1890s more legible. Knowing how many of us are drawn to this period because of the beauty of its artistic production, we wished to consider how digital humanities work might allow for more immersive contact with the pleasures of the 1890s.

As much as we are drawn to the pleasures of this period, however, we stress in our framing of these contributions that, taken as a whole, these chapters insist that we encounter the 1890s as not only dreamy and decadent but as a particularly vexed and dynamic moment, a period marked as much by imperial violence as by excitement about the possibilities of cross-cultural coalition, a moment when environmental activism and socialist agitation took on a sense of intensified urgency. We asked our contributors to think critically about the stories we have tended to tell about the 1890s, and what that has yielded is a markedly different picture of the so-called “Naughty Nineties,” one that, we believe, indicates very clearly how relevant the study of the fin de siècle might be to contemporary conversations about, for example, the environment, categories of sexual identity, or anti-Blackness. As we concluded our work editing this collection, we were left feeling truly excited about the future of fin-de-siècle studies, and we hope that readers will feel similarly energized by this work and inspired to continue rethinking and reframing the 1890s in ways that speak to our political present.

Credit line: Charles Ricketts, Wood-engraved ornament for The Dial 2 (1892), back cover. Courtesy of Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press. Database of OrnamentYellow Nineties 2.0. Public Domain.

Nineteenth-Century Literature
in Transition: The 1890s
by Dustin Friedman and
Kristin Mahoney

About The Authors

Dustin Friedman

Dustin Friedman is Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at American University. He is the author of Before Queer Theory: Victorian Aestheticism and the Self (2019). ...

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Kristin Mahoney

Kristin Mahoney is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Michigan State University. She is the author of Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence (C...

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