Début du siècle


Memorabilia of Oscar Wilde’s Friends From World War I

Oscar Wilde, essential figure of the fin de siècle though he was, joked with Robert Ross that he would not outlive it. Oscar, who was usually right about everything, wasn’t far wrong: he died in November 1900.

He left behind friends who were to belong to a new movement, an artistic circle I might call the début du siècle, who inherited a world of change that was soon to become a world at war.

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In a recent post I railed somewhat about the use of primary sources.

Well sources don’t come any more primary than the recent discoveries of Wildeana that were made at the Free Library of Philadelphia prior to the Oscar Wilde season early this year.

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Critics and Artists at The Rosenbach

To the Rosenbach for a talk about Wilde, Whitman, and Mickle Street

outside-of-the-rosenbach1Last Wednesday evening at the Rosenbach Museum and Library I attended a talk about Mickle Street, the new play that showcases the 1882 meeting between Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde.

One of the presenters was the author of the play Michael Whistler, who explained how it had been necessary for him to invent conversations and situations to portray events that had not been fully recorded. All well and good: reimagining is a legitimate technique in storytelling. But it naturally raises the question of realism vs. artistic license.

So as the talk continued I was assessing the boundaries to a responsible author’s imagination, when he added with evident forethought:

“I am not a scholar; I am not a historian—I am a playwright.”

This bold assertion halted my thought process as it appeared to transcend any idea of boundaries: there was an air of mutual exclusivity about it. Granted we were in a library, but I sensed a virtual divide had suddenly been placed between fact and fiction. As if facts ought to be the sphere of the scholar and fiction the preserve of the playwright.

I wondered was the speaker still in the realm of explanation or was this now justification? And then I realized: it was both! An author defending himself simply by defining himself. Quite deft, I thought.

However, as I am not a playwright myself but rather something of a scholar, I soon realized this construction placed me on the other side of the argument. So the question: how much of the debt to history is owed the critic and how much by the artist?

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Primary Sources

Contemporaneous. Documented. Reliable.


Personal testimony in chronicles and memoirs has forever been the basis of recorded history. Like the legal status of eye-witness testimony, accounts created during living memory have an immediacy that often frees them of taint or nuance. Not all of it is reliable, of course, so researchers should evaluate the source, the subject, and the period before the facts. And we shall get to that.

But first we need to address the inadmissible, principally the hearsay of second-hand material which is often less well defined, and less reliable. Take Columbus, for instance. And before you think this a characteristic segue into Ellmann getting the date wrong for Oscar Wilde’s lecture in Columbus, Ohio, it isn’t—although he did. I mean that yesterday was Columbus Day here in the United States, and on the subject of unreliability I am reminded of Washington Irving‘s supposed history of Christopher Columbus’ first visit to the Americas. For it was Irving who popularized the myth that Columbus set sail thinking he would fall off the edge of the world, when, in reality, the intrepid Italian knew all along about the earth’s curvature—he just miscalculated the circumference. Read Darin Hayton’s salutary article on Irving’s fabrication.

Almost as damaging as intentionally false history is unintentionally false biography. Because all too often new biography is simply an echo chamber of old biography, in which successive viewpoints grow increasingly redundant and incoherent.

Such historiography may have been acceptable, or at least accepted, in the days when collective knowledge was indistinguishable from reflective guesswork. But in an age of digital access to archival newspapers, journals, records, and books, there is no longer any excuse for apocryphal scholarship, and nowhere is this discipline more acutely needed than in the study of Oscar Wilde.

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