Neo-Victorian Decadence in the 1920s: The case of Ben Hecht

Condé, Alice. 2022. Neo-Victorian Decadence in the 1920s: The case of Ben Hecht. In: Kostas Boyiopoulos and Joseph Thorne, eds. Neo-Victorian Decadence. Amsterdam: Rodopi. [Book Section] (Forthcoming)

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Abstract or Description

Decadent texts oppose much of what we understand to be “Victorian”: they are ironic, solipsistic, perverse. Decadence is thus something of an uneasy bedfellow for neo-Victorianism, which is generally regarded as a serious attempt to recover and reinscribe forgotten or marginalised historical presences. In recent years scholars have argued for a wider and more inclusive application of “neo-Victorianism” that extends beyond self-conscious reinterpretation of Victorian texts and histories. Marie-Luise Kohlke acknowledges that we might find “prototypical neo-Victorian departures and stirrings” in retrospective works by writers whose lifespans bridge the fin de siècle and early twentieth century. The early fiction of screenwriter Ben Hecht is one such example. Before he achieved commercial success in Hollywood Hecht styled himself as a successor to the Victorian decadents. Fantazius Mallare (1922) tells the story of Mallare, a solitary decadent at the very apex of ennui. He spouts Wildean epigrams in a red room reminiscent of the embellished and ornamental setting of Salome (1894), and his desire to nullify his senses to assuage the torment of sexual desire is Dowsonian in its extremes. Wallace Smith’s accompanying explicit illustrations constitute a warped kind of Beardsleyana. I argue that while the neo-Victorian credentials of Hecht’s text may be questionable, its decadence is not. In Fantazius Mallare Hecht not only reveals the mechanisms of decadence as self-conscious, self-reflexive, and ripe for parody, he also anticipates new forms of artistic expression. It has been suggested that the opening “Dedication” influenced Allan Ginsberg’s Howl (1956). Hecht’s work shows that decadence is an evolving critical concept that always has a special relationship with the contemporary moment and is characterised by a peculiar “taste for the distasteful”.

Item Type:

Book Section

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature > Decadence Research Unit



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Date Deposited:

28 Feb 2022 09:42

Last Modified:

28 Apr 2022 15:25


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