The State of the Sunflowers

strike-me-sunflowerOscar Wilde’s Reception in Kansas and the Sunflower Soirée.

I recently gave a talk on the subject of Oscar Wilde and the sunflower to the good people of the Maryland Agriculture Resource Council at their Sunflower Soirée, a yearly festival devoted to the Helianthus annuus. Literally, an annual event.

Between you and me, it was a wonderful occasion; but as there was a gloomy weather forecast I choose to focus on the portent to a poignant moment.

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Primary Sources

Contemporaneous. Documented. Reliable.

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Personal testimony in chronicles and memoirs has forever been the basis of recorded history. Not all of it is reliable, of course, so researchers should evaluate the source, the subject and the period before the facts. But at least accounts created during living memory have the virtue of immediacy so they are often not tainted or nuanced.

The real difficulty for scholars occurs with 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 intentionally genuine 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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