Its revival seems to be a sign of the times, and of better times,
in literature; a breath of spring after a winter of discontent. For
we have been going through a prolonged era of intentionally bad art
in every form, whether of writing, painting, sculpture, music - what
not? And The King in Yellow harks back to a day when polished English
was expected of a writer, along with a sense of form, of progress,
suspense, and climax.
Even when an artist does his utmost best, he has done none too well
and is at least as apt as Homer was to nod. But when he is contemptuous
of grammar, structure, grace, he is facing the wrong way, and the
farther he flies the farther he is from a desirable goal.
In all periods of the history of all arts there have been three kinds
of endeavor; archaic affectations of the very sophisticated "primitive";
grotesque ugliness and shapelessness; and a consecrated effort at
beauty, power, and form. The three strata are sometimes mixed together;
sometimes one or another has almost a monopoly.
For years now we have been more or less submerged in a rage for slipshod
technics, almost exclusively devoted to making beauty ugly and ugliness
uglier. In drawing, painting, and sculpture, much of the output resembles
that of the nursery or the insane asylum. In music we have had oblique
harmony, which means, of course, unbroken discord. Strange magazines
and books have tempted both laughter and pity by their extraordinary
experiments in language that nobody even pretends to understand.
Since critics have to live on what fresh meat the market affords,
they have gone along for the ride, and hailed butchers as masters.
There is always bad English and always form that is either too conspicuous
or badly concatenated; but between precocity and perversity, the sincere
struggler for vivid expression of emotion has been more or less in
disgrace of late.
All schools or art, the Grecian no less than the rest, have gone
Gothic at times and made the gargoyle and the wilderness their ideal.
But they always swing back to sanity or at least to the divine insanity
of the seeker after beauty, even in its most tragic, terrifying, or
heart breaking forms.
The writings of Robert William Chambers bracket the interval of bad
art for bad art's sake. He began to publish before the disease set
in, and he was hailed then as a genius. He continued to persist in
his ideals, and so became a byword of critical disfavor. Now after
his death, his work of his youth comes back into its own, and I sincerely
believe that his name will be regarded with high respect when many
of the most touted pets of today, or of yesterday, will be forgotten
The head and front of Chambers' offense was that he wrote beautiful
English about beautiful women and handsome men in beautiful surroundings.
All of these have been anathema to the realists, though there are
vast numbers of good-looking people and vast stretches of gorgeous
scenery; and no end of drama, pathos, and frustration among them.
And there is quite as much true realism in describing them as in sticking
to homely people in shabbiness and squalor, to whom nothing interesting
or too much depressing happens.
I myself love poor, illiterate, and unlucky people; but I do not
love poor, illiterate, and unlucky writing. The world would be appallingly
the poorer if we threw out all the artists who confined themselves
to the rich, and to splendor and charm. We should lose the Watteaus,
the Goujons, the Chopins, the Robert Herricks, the Henry Fieldings.
I could never see why high art must necessarily ignore high life.
The King in Yellow was published in 1895. The central idea is magnificent.
In the story, "The King in Yellow" is a fatal book whose
very words are poisonous. Critics hailed the author as a rival of
Edgar Allen Poe.
Of course, we are still suffering from the critical school that despises
Poe and belittles even Shakespeare. Only this season a New York dramatic
critic ridiculed "As You Like It" in words that resemble
the contempt Pepys expressed for "Romeo and Juliet."
When The King in Yellow first appeared it was the fashion to rave
over it. One read in the reviews such tributes as this:
"The author is a genius without a living equal in his peculiar
field. It is a masterpiece. ... I have read many portions several
times, captivated by the unapproachable tints of the painting. None
but a genius of the highest order could do such work."
Another critic exclaimed: "The short prose tale ... was the
art of Edgar Poe; it is the art of Mr. Chambers. ... It is the most
notable contribution to literature which has come from an American
publisher for many years."
The King in Yellow was Chambers' second book following by only a
few months his first novel, In the Quarter, a study of the Bohemian
life in Paris that he knew so well; for his first ambition was to
be a painter. Born in Brooklyn, he made his preliminary studies at
the Art students' League. A classmate of his was the famous master
of pen and ink, Charles Dana Gibson. Chambers told me once that, as
young students, he and C.D.G. went together to the office of Life
to submit their first drawings. The editor accepted the picture by
Chambers and rejected Gibson's. Gibson remained in New York and became
immensely successful in the field in which he received his first rebuff.
Chambers went to France, studied at the Julien Academy for seven
years. After three he had his first painting accepted by the Paris
Salon, but he finally decided to chuck his brushes overboard and commence
He had, however, learned in France that fine clarity of expression,
that sure feeling of form, which make his English so clear, so lithe,
and his stories so definitely stories.
Also, he learned the French landscape. After the Battle of the Marne
had given that marrow stream immortal fame, he told me once; "I
whipped that little river almost from end to end with a fishing rod."
It depressed him horribly to picture that banks of that pretty meanderer
piled high with dead and its water choked with corpses.
Some of the short stories included in the volume and many of his
first novels were concerned with French life and character, and they
inspired some of his most charming writings, triumphs of sheer style.
For a period, his interest turned to early American history, and
his Cardigan won and holds a high place in historical fiction. He
wrote with such smooth flow and such exciting incident that few understood
what a scholar he was in research. He was incidentally a keen naturalist
with an amazing and perhaps characteristic interest in butterflies.
Many of his fictional characters were butterflies, and I cannot see
why a fluttering, sunlit butterfly is not as legitimate and important
a subject as a bedbug, a spider, or a toad.
After a cycle of historical; novels. Chambers turned to the chronicling
of the contemporary rich and the gaudier people of New York society.
Two things alienated his most friendly reviewers and infuriated his
rivals: his stories concerned wealthy people and could not therefore
be artistic; also, they had enormous success, which completed the
Critics are human in that they tire easily, and nothing wearies them
like the persistent success of a writer year after year for years
His highest achievement in the field of American wealth was The Fighting
Chance. As a serial it had enormous success in the Saturday Evening
Post, and its success as a book was even greater. The demand for it
was so huge that the advance printing order was gradually increased
until no less than one hundred thousand copies made up the first edition.
That is one reason why Bob Chambers' novels are not often found in
the collections of the devotees of rare books. Yet, by coincidence,
just as I undertook to write this preface, I received a catalogue
of the sale of a great library, and found among the items, this:
Chambers, Robert, The King in Yellow. 16 mo., original decorated
green cloth, gilt top. First Edition, in the First Binding, with the
dust jacket. Rare in this State. An Immaculate Copy.
And now the book comes out in a new form, and it is a joy to read,
for the subtle terrors inspired by "The King in Yellow";
for the warm charm and sweetness of other stories in the book, such
as the perfectly delicious "Demoiselle d'Ys"; and for the
power and charm of other stories.
Bob Chambers was, for all his fame and success, the shyest, simplest
author I ever knew. He was modest, lovable, devoted to his beautiful
and devoted wife, and he died slowly in heroic patience. He had his
ideals and lived up to them. He strove for charm, action, character,
and was faithful to beauty. He was a teller of stories, and to tell
a good story well is a high and a difficult art. Take away from out
literature the works of Robert Chambers and a great and brilliant
life would be left without presentation; a swarm of men and women
as typical of our time as any other groups, and living our life to
the full, would be entirely omitted from the literary parade.
For these reasons and because his work was beautiful, much of it
deserves to survive, and will, unless posterity shall be too deeply
involved in its own problems to care for ours.