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.
A survey of Wildean archaeology would reveal the gravelly grovelings of Sherard and Harris, a strata or two of Ellmann’s rocky research, and a whole media mosaic of “likelys”, “probablys” and “almost certainlys”. Not exactly a surefooted way for the modern literary traveler—but rather a crazy paving upon which the partially sighted have too often led the blind up the garden path.
The reason for this plea to tread carefully is that the road seems to be deteriorating. It is a phenomenon fueled largely by the ability of the Internet to propagate misinformation, which is then picked up by a latter-day fifth column receptive to careless talk. Unfortunately, among their number are professed scholars willing to pass off Chinese whispers as gospel. A recent example is the flawed Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde In North America, by Roy Morris, Jr., a pseudo account of Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour, which I reviewed here and for which I have compiled a list of errors and omissions. In this exercise I often found myself empathizing with a nameless Irish friend who, upon hearing tenuous assertions during lectures or walking tours, seems perpetually on the edge of yelling “Prove it!” — the question being: would it stand up in court?
There was an amusing defense of hearsay evidence at a recent event of the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway when we visited an eccentric Irish country house where the young Edward Carson used to take his holidays.
Never mind the claim that Carson was born in the house (which he wasn’t) we were interested in the asserted possibility that Oscar himself spent his boyish summer months there, too, picking daisies or some such. We waited anxiously for enlightenment as to the provenance of the suggestion until our genial host charmingly nonplussed the assembly of gotcha fact-finders by announcing: “I can’t prove that Oscar Wilde was here, but I can’t prove that God exists either…”
Such a defense may not be legally admissible anywhere except in the Santa Claus courtroom of The Miracle on 34th Street but it did neatly double as a warning against another venerable principle: that proof isn’t necessarily a prerequisite to an idea taking shape.
Of course, for an idea to take hold it needs to be reinforced, which may be why our genial host proceeded to capitalize on the lack of a Wildean connection to the eccentric house by saying that “if Oscar Wilde never came here, he missed a lot.”
This led me to two thoughts. First, that the words genial and eccentric were quickly becoming interchangeable, and second, how many other famous people could also lay claim to not having visited the house?
An idea grew that there was only one thing worth celebrating more than visiting a manor such as this, and that was not visiting it. If this is true then maybe outcasts do not always mourn and there is some reward in the Wilderness after all. It is a comforting thought, and not only to the soul of Oscar Wilde, because I miss a lot of events myself simply by not being invited.
Bone a fido
Speaking of historic homes, all this is reminiscent of a cliche associated with many American inns and private houses which asserts that ‘George Washington Slept Here.” No one is fooled by that either.
The American public has long since recognized that the evidence for such presidential sleepovers is usually flimsy at best or non-existent at worst. Such pragmatism might have been schooled by the comedy George Washington Slept Here by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. In the 1940 play (and 1942 film starring Jack Benny) the characters struggle to substantiate the claim until the family dog unearths a letter on the property actually written by George Washington, thus saving the day and restoring the value of the house. The lesson of the story is that bona fide history needs to be based on digging up primary sources, and the fictional nose for Washington evidence is a good example for nonfiction hounds.
So what is a primary source?
Research used to mean an excavation of microfilm reels and dusty corridors, and often in the one library a thousand miles away which happened to have book you want. Fortunately, nowadays dig means digital.
The newspaper clippings at the top of this article and below that report Wilde’s visit to Leavenworth, Kansas, (yes, Ellmann also got that date wrong too), are good examples of primary sources recovered from digital research:
These accounts were written by correspondents who either met Wilde, attended his lecture, or interviewed him at his hotel, and whose reports appeared in the local newspaper at the time. As such, they fulfill the main criteria of a primary source: that of a published, believable, first-hand account.
These criteria provide us with a working definition  as follows:
A primary source is the contemporaneous, documented, and reliable viewpoint of an individual participant or observer usually in the form of:
—Newspapers, periodicals and other published materials reporting actual events, interviews, etc., by participants or observers.
—Journals, speeches, letters, memoranda, manuscripts, diaries and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.
—Records of organizations. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency.
—Primary accounts contained in memoir, biography and autobiography although these may be less reliable if they are written well after the event and distorted by personal agenda, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight.
I think, therefore I consult Descartes
One’s first duty is to think, and who better to turn to for advice on that subject than that self-evident thinker Descartes, for he is attributed with coining the Latin expression de omnibus dubitandum — be suspicious of everything, doubt everything.
Let us apply these principles to the bookends of Oscar Wilde lecture tour in America.
Everyone said (and by everyone I mean anyone who has recorded the visit to America) that Wilde’s final lecture of the tour took place in October 1882 at St. John in New Brunswick, Canada. However, access to the primary source of newspaper archives now shows that Wilde lectured again at Yorkville, New York in late November.
Similarly, everyone said (and this time I do mean everyone) that Oscar Wilde told a Customs officer he had nothing to declare but his genius when arriving at New York. The truth is that there is no primary source evidence to corroborate Wilde’s remark, a thesis I first put forth in 2002 and which is updated here. Indeed, returning to the subject of bona fides I have a bone to pick with Martin Fido for repeating the odious St. John Ervine’s shaggy dog tale which invented an equally spurious reply supposedly made by the Customs officer.
One of the first Wilde biographers to take a skeptical approach was Rupert Croft-Cooke who devoted the first chapter of his The Unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde (D. McKay Co., 1972) to unravelling what he termed “fables” produced by “a rigid crocodile” of biographers, whom he denounced variously as clumsy, pompous, and humorless eccentrics, mountebanks and honest fools.
Among the Wilde stories Croft-Cooke takes pains to debunk are:
- that Wilde had syphilis (shamelessly expanded in the film “Wilde”)
- that Wilde wrote Teleny (now generally accepted that he did not)
- the ‘claptrap’ of the blue china story
- that Ross was his first male lover
- Pearson’s assertion that there was a painter named Basil Ward
- Wilde’s own story about Queensberry and the prize-fighter
- the animosity with Brookfield
- the scenes of glee and dancing outside court after Wilde’s conviction
- the general exodus of gay men from London after Wilde’s conviction
- Wilde’s pugilistic tendencies at college
Following Croft-Cooke, perhaps more notably, and certainly more focused, was the Wildean scholar Horst Schroeder whose Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde is now well known. It was expanded in 2002 and remains essential to arresting errors from the major sourcebook.
The theme of doubting biography continued when Merlin Holland provided the article that begins the The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, (Cambridge University Press, 1997) entitled “Biography and the art of lying.” In it Merlin accepts that early biographers lacked the tools and lived in an era when Wilde’s scandal and shame were still rife. But he also alludes to their “meat-cleaver” approach to the post-mortem study of his grandfather’s legacy in search of skeletons in the closet. He calls into question the sensationalism of trying to establish Wilde’s first homosexual encounter, and the conveniently transformed stories behind Wilde’s moment when “something clutched my heart like ice”. But as ever Merlin is even-handed, and along with being wary of the seductive use of footnotes, he concludes that Wilde’s life was elusive and perhaps he would have wanted it that way, a view that deserves to be the final word on speculative biography.
If that proves so, it would leave the field of study to the empiricists.
Three years ago I noted in my review of the conference: Who Owns The Legacy of Oscar Wilde? that Jason Boyd from the Department of English at University of Toronto, was compiling a genealogy of the written discourse on Oscar Wilde. In it he proposed to publish an online database to be encoded – or descriptively “marked-up” – with the aim of reversing the myth-making in Wilde biography up to 1945. Despite grants from the Faculty of Arts New Initiatives programme and the Humanities Research Council of Canada, results are still awaited. You will appreciate, however, that three and a half years is not a very long time in academic publishing.
Another book which makes a forensic analysis of Wilde is Ashley Robins’ Oscar Wilde — The Great Drama of His Life: How His Tragedy Reflected His Personality (Apollo Books, 2012) in which the author combines a background in medicine and psychiatry with primary sources of prison, government and medical reports to provide new insights into the effects of Wilde’s imprisonment, marriage and health.
More recently, Geoff Dibb has given us Oscar Wilde – a Vagabond with a Mission (Oscar Wilde Society, 2013), which impressively draws upon 25 years of original research into letters, memoirs, biographies, previously unpublished information and thousands of contemporary newspaper accounts, to bring us the first definitive study and painstaking chronology of Wilde’s UK and Ireland lecture tours. For more on Geoff’s research visit the blog of the British Newspaper Archive.
Even more recently still, as I reported in this article last month, Michael Seeney‘s new book From Bow Street to the Ritz: Oscar Wilde’s Theatrical Career from 1895 to 1908 (Rivendale Press (2015) also employs much online research to uncover hitherto unknown productions of Wilde’s plays.
For my part, my entire documentary web site Oscar Wilde In America is built on the principle of primary sources, as is my study Oscar Wilde On Dress which by definition required original research because it features a hitherto unknown essay by Wilde and a journey into uncharted territory, that of Wilde’s relationship with dress.
Pride and permanence
Why does accuracy matter?
Curiously, as important as the outward presentation of correctness is for future generations, I find an equally compelling reason for integrity to be found within. I conclude with two stories to illustrate what I mean.
Last month I visited a UK National Trust house and was met by a guide who described the style of the building as William and Mary. No doubt it was. Probably, it still is. But my partially educated eye had begun to mistake it for Italianate. So I innocently (and genuinely) sought some clarification as to the architectural features which identified the style. But the guide, now shifting uncomfortably, confessed, “I wish you hadn’t asked me that,” admitting that the description she had given, (and had repeated two or three times), was simply the script she had to say. The style of the house had triumphed over the substance of the guide.
Now, I have no wish to denigrate the laudable efforts of a volunteer, but the lesson should be clear: if you put yourself forward as a spokesperson you should be able to stand by your assertions, at least to the point of answering the most basic questions. We all start by borrowing and learning but if one gives a talk three times a week for five years, there has been plenty of time to take some interest, not to say pride, in what you represent, and do some research.
So much for the spoken word. As for the world of print publishing correctness perhaps matters even more because the wages of sin is permanence.
[Incidentally, this is why Wikipedia with 200 million eyes continually editing it will eventually be more valuable than the Encyclopedia Brittanica, where to be wrong once was to be wrong forever.]
This lesson was nicely phrased in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues by the semi-autobiographical army recruit Eugene Jerome, who in the play has cause to regret that his colleagues discover the idle thoughts he has transcribed into his diary; he reflects:
I learnt a very important lesson that night: people believe whatever they read. Something magical happens once it’s put down on paper. They figure no one would go to the trouble of writing it down if it wasn’t the truth. Responsibility was my new watchword.
So this article is a plea for that watchword, because, fellow scholar, as Eugene Jerome also concluded: “once you start compromising your thoughts you’re a candidate for mediocrity”.
© John Cooper
In the article I rightly advocated suspicion about online propagation; however, the Internet is paradoxically the most immediate place to find accuracy, if you know where to look. Here are a some selected web site where you can find primary source information:
[for full access and archival books click on Search Tools/Any Books and select Free Google Books]
 The definition of a Primary Sources used in this article is based on guides prepared by The University of Central Oklahoma and The University of California Berkeley Library.