Primary Sources — Defined

In my recent article about Oscar Wilde’s cello coat, and throughout my online archive of Oscar Wilde In America, I often allude to Primary Sources.

For ease of reference, below is the working definition. [1]

Primary Sources

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.
—Period photographs.

Fortunately, it is increasingly easy to locate primary sources, particularly public domain books, using online searches at places such as the Internet Archive and Google Books.

What is not generally accepted as a primary source, nor should be acceptable in any scholarly account, is the simple referral to a previous work that itself does not rely on a primary source—this practice propagates myth.

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As a counterpoint to this dogma read the article here for a rambling yet lighter view of how the notions of primary material factor into some aspects of Wilde.

[1]  Based on guides prepared by The University of Central Oklahoma and The University of California Berkeley Library.

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 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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