Philadelphia Freedom

The Digital Collection of Oscar Wilde Documents at The Philadelphia Free Library

Readers will recall my visit to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair a couple of years ago where I was offered a very rare Oscar Wilde document.

It was a typescript of the (originally) unpublished portions of Wilde’s passive-aggressive prison masterpiece De Profundis.

It was prepared by Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross, for use in the 1913 trial when Lord Alfred Douglas (Oscar’s lover Bosie) sued a young Arthur Ransome for having the temerity to imply that a person he didn’t name just might have had a hand in Wilde’s downfall.

Not My Type

I politely declined to purchase the typescript, thinking it belonged much more appropriately within the hands (and budgetary means) of a public institution where visitors could see it.

Now, thanks to the power of the digital medium, everybody can see it.

Free Enterprise

The institution that purchased typescript was the Free Library of Philadelphia, which, with its 61 locations, is the 13th-largest public library system in the United States.

Chartered in 1891, its jewel is the Beaux-Arts Central Library which has stood on Vine Street near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway since 1927.

The library boasts a venerable collection of original, and important, Wilde-related documents.

The aforementioned Ransome typescript (now digitized) is not only important as a historical document in itself, it adds to scholarship with manuscript case notes by Ransome’s lawyer, Sir Henry Alfred McCardie, and revealing marginalia by Ross in which he suspiciously exaggerates Wilde’s bankruptcy losses.

The library also holds the only known typescript of Wilde’s French play Salomé (discovered quite recently) which contains many of Wilde’s handwritten emendations including the introduction of the groundbreaking notation “elle danse la danse des sept voiles.” (she dances the dance of the seven veils.)

I blogged about this at the time here.

Among the other items is a 140 page notebook full of  Oscar’s drafts and doodles some of which, as Margaret Stetz (who also discovered the seven veils notation) has pointed out, bear striking allusions to the name Lillie and sketches of faces resembling himself and his future ideal type.

Docs in a Row

At the link below you will find the line up of all of these viewable (and downloadable) PDFs and more.

If you’re grateful for the freedom afforded by Philadelphia to browse these documents, there’s a DONATE button at the top of their page.

Oscar Wilde Documents at The Free Library of Philadelphia

Published by

John Cooper

John Cooper is a independent scholar who has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde. He is a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America. For the last 20 years Cooper has specialised in Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour becoming a consultant on Wilde’s American experience to biographers and the wider media. Cooper lectures on Wilde and has conducted new and unique research into Oscar Wilde visits to New York culminating in a guided walking tour. Online he is a popular blogger and the creator of the noncommercial archive 'Oscar Wilde in America’ which incorporates his work on the Sarony photographs, and a detailed documentary verification of Wilde’s American lecture tour. In 2012 Cooper rediscovered Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

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