The Yellow Book and the Literature of the Eighteen Nineties

By Sarah Gabriel, Rare Books and Manuscripts Intern

In the Rare Books stacks, several rows in, sits an unassuming collection of books with dull yellow bindings. Their rather modest appearance belies the literary importance of their contents. This publication, The Yellow Book, is often considered the epitome of 1890s literature, and its effect on future publications is unmistakable.

The Yellow Book, first published in 1894, stemmed from a collaboration between American novelist Henry Harland and noted illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. The two men imagined an art and literary magazine with the staying power of a hard-bound book, and they approached John Lane of Bodley Head publishing company, who quickly agreed to publish The Yellow Book. Bodley Head had also published the works of Oscar Wilde, although notably Wilde was barred from contributing to The Yellow Book, perhaps in an effort to separate the magazine from Wilde’s controversial image.

The Yellow Book was hugely innovative, bucking convention in favor of experimentation. Unlike other magazines of the time, The Yellow Book had no editorial statements, no reader-contributed “letters to the editor” section, and no advertisements except for a publishers’ list at the back of each volume. It did not include serialized fiction, as was the popular practice for periodicals at the time; instead, the magazine contained sometimes lengthy short stories in their entirety. There was no standardized word count for literary contributors, and experimentation was encouraged, leading to a wide range of styles and mediums from upcoming and established authors and artists alike. Also unlike other publications of the time, The Yellow Book featured a wide range of contributions from women.

 Despite the best efforts of The Yellow Book’s editors, the magazine was not able to skirt controversy. When Oscar Wilde was arrested for “gross indecency” in April 1895 carrying a yellow-bound book, the public imagination ran wild. Onlookers believed Wilde was carrying a volume of The Yellow Book and threw stones through the publisher’s windows. Worse yet, Aubrey Beardsley, The Yellow Book’s art editor, shared a connection to Oscar Wilde, having illustrated the English translation of Wilde’s Salomé (although by the time of Wilde’s arrest Beardsley and Wilde fostered a well-documented contempt for one another.) Tenuous though it was, the connection between Beardsley and Wilde was enough to prompt a public outcry, and publisher John Lane was urged to fire Beardsley to save face. Lane fired Beardsley, and the upcoming volume of The Yellow Book was held back and stripped of Beardsley’s name and contributions, with the exception of his elaborate cover illustration, which had been overlooked in the hurry.

The Yellow Book experienced a lull in sales after the Wilde controversy, losing contributors and readers alike. This did, however, provide space for up-and-coming authors and artists to take the reins. These contributors provided The Yellow Book with several important literary and artistic works, including a poem by influential Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Although the publishers tried to press on, the magazine slowly faltered without Beardsley’s direction. Plagued by staunch competition from new literary magazines and accusations of favoritism directed at publisher John Lane, The Yellow Book eventually ceased publication without fanfare. No announcements were made in the 13th (and final) volume that the magazine would publish no more; the 14th volume simply never appeared.

Although The Yellow Book was published for a relatively short time (1894-1897), its impact on literary culture is undeniable. The magazine fostered the transition between the literary decadence of earlier Victorian decades and the realism that took hold at the turn of the century. It gave a widely-read venue to upcoming authors and artists, including a number of women, who as a class had been often overlooked by other publishers and publications. For these reasons, among others, The Yellow Book is considered the epitome of 1890s literature, and its impact was felt well into the 20th century.

The St. Louis Public Library acquired a complete set of Yellow Books in 1916. Each of the thirteen volumes was originally cataloged as “reference,” meaning that they were never part of the library’s circulating collection. Sometime after the mid-1930s--when the last notes were made in the record book--the final two editions of The Yellow Book disappeared. The library eventually rebound their volumes of The Yellow Book, perhaps due to wear and tear on the original illustrated covers. The internal contents of the remaining eleven volumes are still in impeccable condition, and provide an accurate portrait of what the books would have looked like when first published.

If you would like to view the Library’s copies of The Yellow Book, give us a call in Rare Books & Manuscripts at 314-539-0370.

Additional resources:

The Yellow Book, Quintessence of the Nineties edited by Stanley Weintraub. It contains a history of The Yellow Book and a selection of works that appeared within the magazine’s pages.

The Yellow Nineties Online (1890s.ca), open-access resource for studying the literature of the 1890s, includes facsimile copies of every edition of The Yellow Book, along with other searchable 1890s publications.

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of St. Louis Public Library