A Little Context: Puritanism, Decadence, and the Trial of Oscar Wilde

I loved learning about the historical context of the scandals that involved the Yellow Book, and little magazines’ creators sometimes (possibly) had their artistic intentions thwarted due to their popularity.

Claes mentions that the look of The Yellow Book was chosen specifically to appeal to the general public by appearing (and being named) as a “book” to safeguard against the ephemerality and lack of prestige associated with periodicals (7). While this Trojan horse approach took off and The Yellow Book’s styling became iconic, this led to it being (falsely) named in local papers as being on Oscar Wilde’s person when he was arrested on charges of indecency. I thought it was fascinating how this unique styling and presentation of The Yellow Book became so iconic that the false speculation and implication in indecency rankled its staff members and led to the ousting of Aubrey Beardsley.

The public’s fascination with indecency comes up again in The Decadent Short Story. Boyiopoulos et al cite the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 as a shaping influence in literature of the time (5). When I went to read more about this ‘new puritanism’, I found that these acts were followed closely by the Contagious Disease Acts, which, while aiming to curb venereal diseases among the armed forces, were extensions of the puritan ideology and allowed law enforcement officers to arrest suspected prostitutes and subject them to invasive medical examination.

While I still have more reading to do, the co-occurence of the Decadent, aestheticism, and puritanism at this crucial time shows how the little magazines were political, and possibly radical, even if not always in the intended ways. It also makes sense that volumes such as The Dial are reactionary to elements of their era’s zeitgeist, and overall I found learning about this historical social context fascinating.