Dr. Len Gutkin on the Modernist Dandy

FM: Can you define what a “dandy” is, along with the qualities one must embody to be considered as such? 

A 19th century engraving of George “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840) at his tailor’s shop. (Photo from rake.com)

LG: The dandy is an originally English and European masculine social type emerging in the late eighteenth century in interaction with related types, like the rake, the fop, and the libertine. While the rake is a figure of threatening or even criminal heterosexuality – think of Lovelace in Clarissa (1747) or of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) – and the fop is a foolish figure of fashion, the dandy inherits aspects of both those predecessors but expands their possibilities in a huge range of ways. Eighteenth century and early modern social typology lies outside of my book’s scope, but anyone interested in this longer history should check out Lisa O’Connell’s article “The Libertine, the Rake, and the Dandy,” in volume 2 of The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature.

The dandy of Dandyism really begins in 1844, with Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s little book On Dandyism and Beau Brummell, which took the life of Beau Brummell, an English society celebrity and onetime friend of the Prince Regent, as the occasion to offer a kind of theory of the dandy. From Barbey d’Aurevilly’s book, I extract the complex of traits that mark the modernist dandy: autonomy, coldness, reserve, verbal aggression, connoisseurship, and androgyneity. 

But the most important figure is of course Oscar Wilde, whose celebrity brought the dandy to a new level of universal recognizability, whose aesthetic theorizing cemented the association of this social type with art for art’s sake, and whose trial and prosecution cemented the link between the dandy and stigmatized sexual difference.


FM: Can we separate a writer-as-dandy from a dandy protagonist of theirs? If so, can we have an example? 

LG: Certainly. But dandiacal fiction often encourages, or tempts, us not to separate protagonists from authors, and that’s true of many of the authors I write about: Hemingway and Burroughs are exemplary in this regard. In the case of Raymond Chandler, there’s evidence from the biography that in his exorbitantly alcoholic final years, Chandler often mistook himself for Philip Marlowe. Nabokov’s Lolita – I call Humbert Humbert a “dandy in the evil mode” – enacts one of the riskiest experiments with the tendency of a dandiacal protagonist, especially a protagonist-narrator, to invite identification with the author. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho gains energy from this tendency, too. Some of those problems are best elucidated, in my view, by formal narratology. In the case of Lolita, I cannot recommend enough a brilliant article by James Phelan called “Estranging Unreliability, Bonding Unreliability, and the Ethics of Lolita.”


The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrated by Majeska (The British Library Board).

FM: Is there a quintessential dandy in literature? 

LG: The obvious but I think unavoidable answer is: The authorial persona “Oscar Wilde,” which Oscar Wilde created through his plays, essays, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.


FM: Can you speak to the Modernist dandy in particular? To extend this question, how does a character’s language contribute to their dandyism? 

LG: That’s a hard question to answer pithily because the manifestations of dandyism in language are so various. One primary form of dandyism occurs in dialogue, when characters speak with biting precision and aggressive irony – wit as a shield with a spike in the center, to paraphrase Barbey d’Aurevilly. Oscar Wilde’s witty and aggressive speech while on trial is one form of this; the wisecracking private eye’s is another. 

But there’s another tradition, too, following from what Rhonda Garelick and others call the “decadent dandy” – a figure of convoluted and even pathological interiority, given to obsessive self-probing. Wilde’s smooth-talking aesthetes might contain strange sins within them; Hemingway’s heroes construct shells around a wounded and palpitating interiority; Djuna Barnes’s characters have psychic insides represented by elaborate poetic conceits often turning on imagery of physiology and biology. Dandyism plots the interaction of these two strands across the twentieth century. 


Mademoiselle de Maupin (1897) by Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop).

FM: And how do we see the Modernist dandy intersect with gender?

LG: In the larger culture, the dandy as such becomes overtly associated with queerness, specifically with male homosexuality, only after the Wilde trials, but the literary tradition from which Wilde emerged had been preoccupied with androgyny, “inversion,” and so on for a long time – in France, even before Baudelaire, in Théophile Gautier’s 1835 novel Mademoiselle du Maupin, which influenced Hemingway. You can track the androgyny topos through Pater – his ekphrastic fantasy about the Mona Lisa – to Eliot’s Tiresias, let’s say. Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, too, is related to this tradition, as Marjorie Garber and others have discussed.

Some versions of the modernist dandy, like the macho Hemingway hero, play with this tradition by trying to suppress it, or by transforming its motifs – decadent aestheticism is brought to bear on the bullfight and the big-game hunt, for instance. But as scholars have recognized for over three decades now – ever since the posthumous publication of Garden of Eden – Hemingway, like all dandiacal writers, was animated by a preoccupation with androgyny and sex-changing that is one of modernism’s great themes and engines. 


Len Gutkin is a senior editor at the Chronicle Review. He is the author of Dandyism: Forming Fiction from Modernism to the Present (UVA Press, 2020). He is working on a second book, Unseriousness Seriously Pursued: Irony and Camp Affect from James to von Trier.

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