The King in Yellow


Dedication for the
1938 Memorial Edition of
The King in Yellow

by Rupert Hughes

I ENVY those who will read for the first time this ever-young story that I read in my youth. Yet on re-reading it, I find that it has lost none of its original savor or poignancy in its forty-three years of published existence.

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 or derided.

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 author.

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 insult.

Critics are human in that they tire easily, and nothing wearies them like the persistent success of a writer year after year for years on 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.

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