Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Chandos M Brown

Committee Member

Leisa D Meyer

Committee Member

Melanie Dawson

Committee Member

Dana Seitler


This dissertation engages with a neglected group of writers, artists, and intellectuals in the United States who identified with Decadence, a European literary and artistic movement. Decadence was a label, embraced by some, that refers to a state of art and literature that suggests the end of an Empire: luxurious, imitative, corrupt, sensuous, and ultimately worthless. Self-professed Decadents elevated artificiality, morbidity, sensuality, and pessimism. They also lived lives, both imaginary and real, of separation from the world, attempting to fully embody otherness as they watched the world change around them and anticipated the fall of civilization. I question how these supposedly foreign ideas worked in America, in a transatlantic conversation that reveals yet another aspect of the transition to modernity in America. I suggest “morbid love” as key to understanding the cultural work of Decadence, using it to mean both a love of illness and disease that the Decadents evidenced, as well as a love that in itself was doomed to death. In this dissertation I argue the following. First, I build on work establishing the existence of American Decadence by emphasizing the cultural engagement of Decadence despite its self-professed insularity and rarity. Second, I argue that Decadence in America exemplifies a particular moment in the intellectual histories of degeneration theory and sexuality that has been largely ignored. While most studies of degeneration theory emphasize the power of the theorists and the low social status of theorized, Decadents brought degeneration to the upper classes, the learned, those with cultural capital. They acted as both theorists and theorized. In terms of sexuality, Decadence created a space that fit into neither the standard acts paradigm, nor the following identity paradigm, suggesting that sexuality was a matter of artistic and aesthetic choice and taste. Third, I argue that these deviations from standard narratives show that American Decadents performed a political queerness that functioned as a cultural critique and created a space that complicates our understanding of the period. Each chapter of this dissertation explores an aspect of the Decadent cultural criticism, emphasizing the deliberate queerness, or morbidity as they would phrase it, of their stance. It is now standard in studies of structures to examine the construction of the “normative” condition (whiteness, heterosexuality, masculinity, etc.) rather than the deviant. I argue, however, that this approach automatically associates those with power as normative and those without as deviant. I hope in this work to complicate that narrative.



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