Painted Veils is the literary turnstile into lubricious, hard-drinking, wise-cracking twentieth-century New York, as Huneker was himself the incarnation of the cultured bohemianism of the glamorous days when the city was young, irresponsible, Dionysian.
This book is New York in any year between 1880 and 1900. It is the most vital and vivid picture ever written of those decades by a man who lived its life, a man who made it his own, absorbing it with every breath, incorporating it in every cell of his body and brain.
For this man Huneker was a voracious shark of the intellectual and of the sensuous life. He was a veritable Moloch of arts and persons, beers and food. He was curious about all things, a sleuth of all sensations and thoughts. To him Experience was Truth.
Everything gave him a nervo-vascular thrill—stars and beer; a woman’s back or a new theory of the functions of the pylorus; music or pig’s feet; Flaubert or Coney Island carrousels; Bergson or Chianti; a police- man or the Aquarium. He was Pantheistic gusto and ecstasy; and New York—the old pre-war New York of Painted Veils—was the Coliseum and the Champs de Mars of this cultural playboy of our Western World.
He Gothamized the culture of Europe—and poured the quintessence of it into the brains of the characters in Painted Veils. But it never ceases to be New York and American New Yorkers that Huneker is talking about in this novel. Right after he had written it he wrote me that he had “just spun out a portrait in black and white and purple.” Whether he meant that the portrait in these colors was the portrait of New York City or the portrait of a woman—Easter Brandes—I do not know. Or it may be that Easter—or Ishtar—and New York City were the same in the Huneker pattern- thought. For he loved New York like a woman—”that sweet, old, singing strumpet sitting astride the Battery,” as he once spoke of New York to me while we nuzzled in our seidels of Pilsener in Jack’s one morning under the Roosevelt-Taft Dynasty.
The New York that is depicted in Painted Veils rears itself in my memory-cells like an Atlantis that has foundered and come to life again at the Prosperean touch of Huneker’s pen. How well I knew— how much better Huneker knew!—that New York of Ulick, Dora, Easter, Mona, Alfred, Milton and Godard; that New York far less provincial than it is today; that New York that was Parisian in its quiet gayety and free-and-easy culture and drinking, and which has now become a colossal small town, with its hectic drinking and jazz, its proletarian and cafeteria culture and its almost senile libidinousness.
Huneker wrote Painted Veils in 1919. He dug up Pompeii and blew the breath of the nineties into its old streets and thumped with his magical knuckles on the grave of a dead gayety, of an almost Utopian Freedom. The New York that passes before you in this book is the New York of open-air dining and wining on Second Avenue, with a boy playing a melting waltz in your ear on his violin; of those old table d’hôtes like the Maison Félicé in the story where wine was served free with every meal and one could hear intellectual tittle-tattle and the double-entendre before it became as, today, guffawing obscenity; bohemias of poets, actors, singers and literate adventurers of both sexes; the New York of Lilli Lehmann, the De Reszkes, the Haymarket, Mike Lyons’, five-cent beer, of Lüchow’s, where imported beers sailed thousands of us to felicity; the New York of Mendelssohn Hall, of the Kiralfys, of Anton Seidl, of Terrace Garden, Nordica, Edgar Saltus, of Moretti’s, Maria’s and the grand old sea-going hansom cabs with their high-hatted Irish drivers; the New York of Otero, Carmencita, Little Egypt, Koster & Bial’s and of Irving place, that little street that runs from Lüchow’s to Gramercy Park and which in those days housed more famous and winey-souled writers, painters, sopranos, bassos and lovely-loose ladies of literature than any other street of its size in the world; the New York of Martin’s (down in University place, where the Lafayette is now), of Melba, of Plancon, of the Hoffman House, of Victor Maurel, of the old rathskellers, of Peter Buckel’s, where you actually dined and drank in a brewery!; the New York of Mark Twain, of Edgar Fawcett, of John L. Sullivan, of the Amen Corner in the Fifth Avenue Hotel, presided over by Tom Platt; of the race-tracks and glamorous nights at Rector’s; of the free-and-easy street-walkers, of Martin Engel’s Red Light District, of Rudolph Aron- son’s Casino; the New York of Delmonico’s, Jack’s, Silsbee’s and Little Hungary, where the wine hung in glass tubes over your head; of the Cafe Boulevard; of the horse-shows at the Garden, of genteel agnostics, of Muschenheim’s Arena, of Frankie Bailey’s legs and delicious Della Fox in pants. In a word, a city in which people rubbed elbows with one another unsuspiciously, where the cutthroat game of kill-the-other-fellow was almost unknown—New York before the high tower and the low speak-easy; a brilliant, unbuttoned city, thawed out into Huneker’s matchless prose in this Golden Book of Sex and Art.
Although the pattern of Painted Veils had been in Huneker’s head for some years, it was actually written in six weeks. To read it in one sitting gives one a sense of furious speed. Here is an Arch-Logocrat satirizing, flaying all humanity. Here is the romantic Huneker, the epigrammatic Huneker, the incandescent Huneker, the cynical Huneker, the glamorous Huneker in all his red-coat glory.
He sinks his intellectual fangs into everything in this book through the mouths of Ulick Invern, Mona Milton, her priest brother, and Alfred Stone. He put all of his sex-wisdom into Mona, who plays with dollies, and Easter, who plays with real dollies of both sexes. These characters move through a radiant atmosphere of epigrammatic prose which somehow etherizes, or, rather, volatilizes their bodies and souls and puts an aura of the romantic over their sordid and mucking pleasures. Ulick Invern, torn between three women, is really Huneker himself, at least intellectually and artistically. In Ulick’s soliloquies and speeches, among the most brilliant in our literature, I can hear the very accent and the subtlest nuance of Huneker’s voice.
It has been said that Huneker could not create character. An error. He could create precisely the characters that he wanted to create for his purpose, for his story. The five main characters in Painted Veils are living, breathing, quite recognizable entities. They are as vivid, as “going,” as the characters in any story-writer’s of the Huneker type—Aldous Huxley, James Branch Cabell or Maurice Barrès. If they lack warmth, that’s precisely what the unsentimental Huneker intended. He is depicting purely cerebral types—the progenitors of the twentieth-century cultured man and woman. It will be a long time after finishing Painted Veils before Easter, Ulick and Mona are forgotten. They are in- tensely and vibrantly alive.
There is an ancient literary superstition that only those characters live and affect us in literature who register profoundly on our humanistic emotions. Nothing is further from the truth. The brain, the intelligence, the aesthetic instinct also have their emotional systems. It is the pure creations of the brain, that appeal primarily to the brain, that are immortal in literature: Don Quixote, Hamlet, Emma Bovary, Bazaroff and Jurgen, to name only a few.
“Character is plot,” said Henry James. Huneker must have nailed that beautiful and encompassing principle on his desk when he sat down to write Painted Veils. In his daily life he smelled a story in every man, woman and child he met. All life aspires to fiction. Everything tends to make a lying counterfeit of it- self. All of life is a series of ephemeral yarns spun by some hidden Balzac of the Stars. “Why don’t you write more fiction, Jim?,” I asked Huneker more than twenty years ago. “Why, I’ve never written anything else,” he replied. Most of his books are books of criticism. Yet he considered criticism a branch of fiction, as, indeed, it is, along with astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. His criticism is all fiction and his fiction, Painted Veils especially, is criticism—a criticism of life.
These characters, then, in this book carry their “plots” within themselves. They all move inevitably toward their ruin or disillusion. Huneker shows himself the supreme artist by hiding the machinery of this fatality. There is nothing to indicate the sudden and over- whelming catastrophe that floors Ulick and Milton or that brings Mona finally to the legalized embrace of Paul Godard. It is only Dora, the eternal harlot-type, who has nothing hidden, no inevitability, no fatality. Dora is not a becoming.
She just is. But, to me, the full magic of Huneker’s genius in fiction is in the character of Easter Brandes. This Maw of Art and Sex, this Yankee superwoman, this Barnum-Sappho, is the person least heard or seen in this book, and yet she somehow dominates the whole story, hovering over it, penetrating it, enmeshing and cueing the other characters like some mocking female Mephisto. This Southern girl who passed through the vile sex orgies of the Holy Yowlers to the heights of Isolde, knowing every perversion, totally amoral, destructive, one of the Anthropophagi of Vice—if she isn’t the unique, most daring and the most artistically perfect woman of her type in twentieth-century Anglo- American literature, I would like someone to name her superior.
Writing in America today was never less inspired. The passionate joy of writing seems to have passed away. Fiction and criticism are labored. The love of words scarcely exists. This is a blasphemy to me. It is as though a Chopin should hate the piano or a poet the dictionary. The poetical, the metaphysical imagination is bankrupt. Enter the “document,” the propagandist, the illiterate recorders of the obvious. Literature has forsaken the luminous breasts of Aphrodite to buzz around the rumps of Karl Marx, Zola and Fanny Hill. What a relief, therefore, to go back to Huneker, the Wagner of Words, the man with a style, the lapidary of brilliant epigrams, a master of the one thing that lives in literature: phrasing.
I re-read Painted Veils after twelve years. And again I say, as I have said a hundred times before, that the author of Painted Veils and seventeen other books had no predecessor in American literature—unless I except Edgar Saltus—and certainly has had no successor.