Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Fateful Beauty

Fateful Beauty: Aesthetic Environments, Juvenile Development, and Literature, 1860-1960

Douglas Mao
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 332
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fateful Beauty
    Book Description:

    When Oscar Wilde said he had "seen wallpaper which must lead a boy brought up under its influence to a life of crime," his joke played on an idea that has often been taken quite seriously--both in Wilde's day and in our own. InFateful Beauty, Douglas Mao recovers the lost intellectual, social, and literary history of the belief that the beauty--or ugliness--of the environment in which one is raised influences or even determines one's fate. Weaving together readings in literature, psychology, biology, philosophy, education, child-rearing advice, and interior design, he shows how this idea abetted a dramatic rise in attention to environment in many discourses and in many practices affecting the lives of the young between the late nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth. Through original and detailed analyses of Wilde, Walter Pater, James Joyce, Theodore Dreiser, Rebecca West, and W. H. Auden, Mao shows that English-language writing of the period was informed in crucial but previously unrecognized ways by the possibility that beautiful environments might produce better people. He also reveals how these writers shared concerns about environment, evolution, determinism, freedom, and beauty with scientists and social theorists such as Herbert Spencer, Hermann von Helmholtz, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, and W.H.R. Rivers. In so doing, Mao challenges conventional views of the roles of beauty and the aesthetic in art and life during this time.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3280-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION Talking about Beauty
    (pp. 1-17)

    The first of these epigraphs comes from “The Decorative Arts,” a lecture Oscar Wilde gave on his North American tour of 1882. In a sense, the book before you does no more than elaborate some broader contexts for this witticism, asking what meanings it may have had for its utterer, what made it intelligible to its first hearers, and why it might still say something to us today. Answering these questions in depth, however, means tracking a set of ideas about environment’s work on the young through a range of appearances, on terrains as diverse as interior-decoration guides, popular child-rearing...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Stealthy Environments
    (pp. 18-65)

    On the threshold of the twentieth century, the Swedish reformer Ellen Key gave the titleBarnets århundrade, orThe Century of the Child, to a book that would become a runaway international bestseller. In so naming it, Key meant to forecast, or to prescribe, what the new century might be: the age when humanity would recognize how completely a society’s character is determined by the way its children are raised and, by devoting its best resources to the perfecting of juvenile conditions, at last transcend the violence and misery that had constituted its sorry history thus far. Yet the title...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Aestheticism’s Environments
    (pp. 66-108)

    These lines, along with a few others also from the conclusion toStudies in the History of the Renaissance(1873), were the ones for which the critic and fiction writer Walter Pater was most notorious in his lifetime, and are surely the ones for which he is best known today. The powers at Oxford, where Pater was a fellow of Brasenose College beginning in 1864, were famously disturbed by their intimation that the legitimate aim of life might be sensuous pleasure; students of aestheticism have been endlessly interested in their excision from the book’s second edition and the footnote accompanying...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Aesthetics of Acuteness
    (pp. 109-138)

    At this juncture, we need to acknowledge that aestheticism may seem a peculiar point of focus for an exploration of late nineteenth-century views of environment’s power. For the literary movement or mode most often associated with environmental determinations of development has been not aestheticism, but something that from many angles looks like its antithesis: literary naturalism. The present chapter and the next will try to redress omissions in just this quarter by considering the force of beauty as registered by two English-language writers closely associated with naturalist theory and practice. But this will not mean backtracking from the claim that...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Tropisms of Longing
    (pp. 139-176)

    For the late nineteenth century, as the preceding pages should have suggested, social and economic determinism was strongly connected to biological and mechanistic determinism. Today, the disciplinary divide between the social and the natural sciences may reinforce the intuition that socioeconomic conditions belong to a different area of inquiry from molecular transactions of the human organism, even where we remain aware that countless practical crossings of this divide occur every day in research, policy-making, and other institutional practices. For writers like Émile Zola and the criminologists quoted in chapter 1, however, the idea that a person’s destiny would be shaped...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Great House and Super-Cortex
    (pp. 177-215)

    For those wrestling with the dangers besetting the young, as we have seen, one benefit of thinking in terms of environment was that it could make the complete safeguarding of juvenile experience appear more nearly possible. Where one might have trouble imagining the entire temporal span of a young person’s life kept free from shock, vice, and temptation, one might yet have hopes of maintaining a perfectly secure environment, especially since the examples of home, school, and prison seemed to confirm the achievability of protection when spatially conceived. In chapter 2, we saw Wilde giving this conception some specificity by...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Growing Up Awry
    (pp. 216-255)

    Published in the crisis year of 1939,I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Certain Eminent Men and Women of Our Timeassembled views about the nature of the world and the desiderata of life from twenty-one intellectual luminaries, including Franz Boas, Pearl Buck, Albert Einstein, Havelock Ellis, Harold Laski, and George Santayana. Though the volume itself is not much remembered, some of the statements that were part of it—E. M. Forster’s, for example—continue to be regarded as crucial windows into the thinking of their authors. The poet, critic, and dramatist W. H. Auden begins his credo (which happens...

    (pp. 256-266)

    To end with “In Praise of Limestone” is undoubtedly to invite some objections, among them that this landscape poem ought not to be taken as the closing exhibit in a book that has concerned itself with the interiors of human dwellings much more than with outdoor places. To this it must be rejoined, however, that one of this study’s very morals has been that writers of the period in question were concerned with something that transcended any categorical division between built human spaces, on the one hand, and landscape (or pastoral, or georgic, or Wordsworth’s legacies to nature writing), on...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 267-288)
  13. References
    (pp. 289-306)
  14. Index
    (pp. 307-319)