Shirley Everett Johnson: “The End and Aim of Art”

Photographers Unknown, Twelve Portraits of Men

Howard then blurted out this proposition: “I say, fellows, let us form a new club, to be known as “The Cult of the Purple Rose.” What do you say?”

Lucian Denholm, the tall, slender man with a pensive face, who was really brilliant and therefore said little, was now the first to speak, because the name had been suggested by his Purple Tea. He was enthusiastic in favor of the scheme, and said he was complimented by the recognition of his efforts to be original. Then he outlined his plan.

“Oh, it will be simple lovely,” he said, “and so original! We will all wear purple roses, and write on purple linen, —I might say purple and fine linen, —use three cent purple stamps instead of the customary twos, and if any of us should ever write on white paper, he must invariably use purple ink.

“Besides, we would attract so much attention with our purple handkerchiefs and hat bands. It will be so gratifying to hear people remark how hideous they are, and we can be as truly happy as the end and aim of art will allow.

“And to carry it further, we can write purple verses and purple stories and tell purple lies, in lieu of commonplace white lies. And just as it has been shown how lying is a fine art, so much more will purple lying be art.”

—-Shirley Everett Johnson, The Cult of the Purple Rose, Section II, 1902

There is very little information on the life of Shirley Everett Johnson, the author of “The Cult of the Purple Rose”. It is known that he graduated from Harvard University with the class of 1895, which he joined following his sophomore year at the Louisville High School. Johnson was not known to have participated in any of the recognized extracurricular activities available at the college. During his life, he was a journalist and a banker in the state of Kentucky. 

Johnson’s only published books are the 1901 “Conquering a Small Pox Epidemic in Kentucky” and the 1902 novel “The Cult of the Purple Rose: A Phase of Harvard Life”, which was published by Richard G. Badger of Boston’s Gorham Press. 

Considered to be among the genre known as proto-gay novels, “The Cult of the Purple Rose”  is an odd, esoteric example of American college fiction, one which dealt with Harvard University’s student life at the very end of the nineteenth-century. The book’s preface states that the story concerns the lives of a few exceptional people and should not be taken as a full presentation of Harvard undergraduate life. Although a fictional work, some  parts of the book are known to be factual. These include remarks made about publishers Herbert S. Stone and Ingalls Kimball, who as Harvard undergraduates were responsible for the 1894 “The Chap Book” and the 1893 “First Editions of American Authors”. 

In “The College Pump” article, published in the Harvard Alumni Bulletin of April 19, 1958, there was an extract from a doctoral thesis by Maurice F. Brown Jr. which explored the late nineteenth-century, cultural climate of the Yard, the historical campus area of Harvard containing most of the freshman dormitories. This excerpt contained a discussion of “The Cult of the Purple Rose” and also a discussion on the Laodicean Club of 1893. There is speculation that what was known as The Cult of the Purple Rose may have actually been the Laodicean Club.

Whether regarded as fictional or factual-based, “The Cult of the Purple Rose” presented a portrait of Harvard University’s reaction to publications associated with the Aesthetic and Decadent movements of the late-nineteenth century. Both of these movements ran contrary to the established persona of Harvard University. The artists and writers of  the Aesthetic movement tended to believe that the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey sentimental or moral messages. The Decadent movement followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality, and held to the view that human creativity and art were superior to logic and the natural world. Literary examples of these movements include “The Lark” and the literary quarterly “The Yellow Book”, both published in England.

The story within “The Cult of the Purple Rose” also presented the university’s perception and judgement of such prominent figures of the time as essayist Max Beerbohm whose works first appeared in “The Yellow Book”, illustratorAubrey Beardsley who co-founded “The Yellow Book”, and author Oscar Wilde. All three, among others, were members of the Aesthetic movement.

Notes: 

In the Harvard Illustrated Magazine, Volume IV, October of 1902, there is a review of “The Cult of the Purple Rose”. Although the main aspects of the plot was considered to be nonsensical, the book was judged as clever and readable, at times witty, but by no means sincere. The type-work and cover were considered attractive and the book distinctly well made. 

A full edition of “The Cult of the Purple Rose” can be found at the Internet Archive located at: https://archive.org/details/cultpurplerosea00presgoog/mode/2up

One thought on “Shirley Everett Johnson: “The End and Aim of Art”

Leave a Reply