Primary Sources

Contemporaneous. Documented. Reliable.

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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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Identity Crisis | Book Review: Declaring His Genius

Book Review: Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde In North America, by Roy Morris, Jr.

morris-coverBY JOHN COOPER

Those of us, like Mrs Cheveley, who are fond of calling things by their proper name, would struggle to categorize Declaring His Genius, by Roy Morris, Jr.

Let us start with what it is not. It is not profound enough to be a serious biography of an American Wilde—and, to be fair, it might never have been published if it were. Besides, one would not expect such an approach of a book that asserts that ‘Wilde may well have been a genius—at self promotion, if nothing else’ [my emphasis], which makes one wonder whether the author is convinced enough of Wilde as a thinker or writer to produce a critical study.

But neither is the book what it purports to be, which is an account of Wilde’s time in America—at least not exclusively. This is because the Wilde story Morris gives us is full of holes. By this I am not referring to the wealth of factual errors throughout the text which need only be problematic for the Wilde historian. As such there is no need to dwell on them here, beyond noting that the Introduction signals a disregard for integrity by adhering to remarks that sound ‘like something Wilde would have said’, explaining that the book ‘depends to a certain extent on anecdote, word of mouth, and local legend.’

[See web site for list of scholarly errata]

By holes I mean the opportunistic detours the book takes from a rounded theme of Wilde’s American tour which Morris fills with square pegs. The result is a flawed schema that places its protagonist amid an anthology of sometimes tangential, but often downright irrelevant, populist history.

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