Edgar Saltus’s Imperial Orgy

Edgar Saltus’s work has been described as that of a man consumed by a furious hunger — a veritable bulimia — for all experiences.

He wrote over thirty books, but you will no longer find any of them in bookshops. Nearly a hundred years ago he was a popular New York writer. Saltus wrote histories and novels. His novels were erotic, decadent and shocking. His histories, of which Imperial Orgy is one, were noted mostly for their use of imagination. He made things up.

“He rioted through history upon a charger that struck sparks from dry chips, flinging the impotent hand of fact from his bridle”, wrote Ben Redman in the preface to this book.

The book tells the story of the Russian tsars. The first man to give himself this title was Ivan IV in the 16th Century. The last of the line was Nicholas, executed with the rise of Bolshevism at the start of the Twentieth.

There are ten chapters and the first is about Ivan the Terrible. If you believe what you see in the film by Eisenstein, then you might think of him as Ivan the Boring. Not according to Saltus. Reading from the top of page two, concerning Ivan’s subjects:

“From some he had the epidermis removed, after which they were flayed. Others he carved, a leg or an arm at a time, which he fed to hounds but seeing to it that the amputated were sustained with drink, that their vital organs were protected, seeing to it that they were tended, nursed, upheld, enabled as long as possible to look on at the feast of which their limbs were the courses. Others, tied in sacks, were trampled by maddened horses. But some danced to his piping. Put in cages they were burned alive.”

Strong stuff for page two.

When it comes to Peter the Great, things have by no means improved:

“For the greater awe of Peter, Moscow was turned into a gehenna. There were groves of gibbets, blood in lakes, hills of dead, tortures vaster than Carthage knew, than Castille beheld. Peter’s deputies sank outwearied. Peter was tireless. Axe in hand he stalked knee-deep in the human abattoir.”

Saltus does try to stick to the facts as far as dates and events are concerned. His reports of invasions, wars, assassinations and marriages are all accurate. But the stories he tells blossom out from these bare — and, as he would have it, bloody — bones. “He was an artist, history was his model, frequently his victim,” says Redman.

Two generations after Peter came Catherine.

“Catherine was an empress who made enormous an empire already vast; a tsaritsa who enumerated her victories and could not count her amours; a conqueror who had Adonis for secretary of the treasury and Apollo for minister of war; a cynic who slaughtered Poland and called herself a pupil of Voltaire; a sovereign before whom the entire pageant of passion and glory unrolled; a tyrant and a lesbian who passed through history dripping with blood and exhaling the perfume of Eros.”

Saltus was trained as a lawyer but never practised. Educated but no academic, he earned himself the disdain of historians and contemporary critics. He took what were perceived to be the facts and let his mind whirl through words and revel in what might have been.

Of 16th Century Russia he said that human flesh hung in the markets and that mothers were seen eating children. That is not recorded elsewhere. He also said that, “It is only the mad who are delivered from the commonplace”. And Saltus is certainly not commonplace. If you are searching for this work in book catalogues you will find it in History/Biography/Soviet Union. The irony of this adds to the charm of the piece and it is charming indeed.

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