History

Quote of the Day: On Archive Research

Working an archive—like working a coal seam—is a physical exercise that calls for stamina. Stamina against fatigue, first of all, when handling ledgers that weigh over twenty pounds, gigantic folio volumes that can only be read standing up; and stamina against the dust, which invades everything with steely determination and winds up giving the researcher an illusion that, as in transubstantiation, she is becoming parchment herself. And stamina with respect to endless hesitations and misunderstandings caused by the handwriting—all those upstrokes and downstrokes of another era, those spellings that only slowly if steadily become standardized—until the intended meaning of a text could be determined through its details. Stamina, finally, to resist the tempting interpretations, the inevitable preconceptions built on personal history; in short, to resist haste. Woe to the impatient—a group to which I permanently belong. When in a hurry to discover, you have to be careful to wait, sometimes at length, recopying endlessly like a donkey until a coherent picture emerges, until statistics cohere, until a problematic emerges. It can be long and tough, yet gratifying.

-Laure Murat, The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon 

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Today We Have Peace

My first encounter with the Christmas truce of 1914 was this touching song performed by Will Hoppey.

Smithsonian Magazine has an article today on the true story of the World War I truce.

Their truce–the famous Christmas Truce–was unofficial and illicit. Many officers disapproved, and headquarters on both sides took strong steps to ensure that it could never happen again. While it lasted, though, the truce was magical, leading even the sober Wall Street Journal to observe: “What appears from the winter fog and misery is a Christmas story, a fine Christmas story that is, in truth, the most faded and tattered of adjectives: inspiring.”

Read the article, then listen to the song, and see if you can keep a dry eye.

Peace on earth. Goodwill to all.

Biography and the Art of Interpretation

Lives don’t tell stories. People tell stories. Lives are made up of events, some connected, some random. Some possibilities are explored, some are averted. It is only in retrospect that a person can go back and make a story out of those events. This necessarily involves interpretation.

I was reading Matthew Sturgis’ “Oscar: A Life” today and I came across an interesting example. A single observation in a letter written by Robert Ross in Sturgis’s book is presented with an almost opposite meaning as it is in my own. The quote is from the period shortly after Wilde and Douglas were forced to give up living together in Naples after Wilde’s release from prison. Here is how it appears in Sturgis:

But the all-consuming intimacy of the past was not recovered. And without the distorting lens of love, Bosie’s selfishness became all too apparent. As Ross reported to Smithers, after a visit to Paris, Douglas ‘is less interested in other people than ever before, especially Oscar, so I really think that alliance will die a natural death’.

The fact that Douglas is said to be less interested in other people, especially Oscar, here is evidence of Douglas’s selfishness. I saw it, instead, as evidence that Douglas became depressed after being forced to separate from Oscar Wilde. After having weathered so much to be together, both suffered from depression when that period of their relationship came to an end. (Oscar Wilde told a friend he considered suicide at that time.) Clinical depression manifests in a lack of interest in things you once enjoyed. Depressed people often withdraw from social interaction. For a number of reasons, which I spell out in the book, I suspect that Lord Alfred Douglas suffered from mental illness and so “losing interest in other people” immediately appeared to me as a symptom of depression. You can follow my reasoning in the book and decide for yourself.

The reason I wanted to write about this quote is that I think it serves as an excellent example of the way a bit of biographical material is put into context, and the many layers of interpretation that go into understanding one line. There are many things a historian must decide. Is Robert Ross’s report accurate? Had Douglas indeed “lost interest in other people, especially Oscar”? Does the fact that the witness was Ross color how Douglas might have behaved? Could he have been specifically uninterested in talking to Robbie about other people (Oscar in particular)? (I can think of a number of reasons why this might be the case.)

Of course a biographer doesn’t interpret one letter in isolation. He or she decides the answer to those questions based on other material uncovered. Sturgis has good reason to read the line as evidence of selfishness. Wilde often describes Douglas in that light in letters to Robert Ross. There is also the small matter of the story Wilde tells in De Profundis.

What are we to make of these sources? How historically accurate was De Profundis? How did the unique context of its creation effect what ended up on the page and how Wilde interpreted the events of his life at that moment?  Was his description of Douglas in his letters to Ross consistent with how he spoke about him in the period to others? Was there something about his relationship with Ross that might have colored how he spoke about Douglas to him specifically? I came to certain conclusions about this, but others will form different opinions.

Generally speaking, the only people who read about Lord Alfred Douglas do so because they have an interest in Oscar Wilde. This creates a certain framing. You can assume that anyone with an interest in Wilde would have read De Profundis before reading any of Douglas’s accounts of their relationship. De Profundis creates a powerful first impression. There have been a number of studies that show that once we form an idea about someone, it is very hard to change, even with new information.

Having read De Profundis, and then reading Douglas’s own accounts, you see the traits that Wilde described. “There’s that selfishness he was talking about.” “There’s that moodiness.”

Of course those traits were there. There is no denying that Douglas had a strong sense of entitlement. He was a snob and was often selfish. The De Profundis account may not have been totally accurate or fair, but neither was it entirely inaccurate or unfair. Would the traits that Wilde criticized in Douglas jump out as much as they do if we weren’t already primed to focus on them and see them as his defining traits?  It’s hard to know, but it is a bias that I think it is worth trying to correct for.

In the end, I can’t say with certainty whether Douglas “lost interest in people” at that moment because he was too full of himself to be bothered with them, or because he had just been forced to separate from his lover, had an argument with him over it, and was depressed. The latter explanation feels more right to me. Read it as you will.

 

 

 

 

 

The Clinton Affair

Monica Lewinsky has pinned a tweet at the top of her feed.

DNb_YhfUQAADOFT

It must be a message to herself as much as anyone. I needed it as a palate cleanser after making the horrible mistake of typing her name into the twitter search bar after watching “The Clinton Affair.” I wanted to see if there were reviews and commentary on the documentary. What I saw was the vitriol that is still aimed at Lewinsky. A lot of people hiding behind their social media handles express, in colorful terms, their desire that she shut up and go away.

What strikes me about the online commentary, to the extent I was willing to consider it before looking away with a feeling of having been polluted, was that it doesn’t seem to come from people who love Bill Clinton and who want to protect his reputation. The discourse is too rancorous and primal for that. What is threatening in listening to Lewinsky’s perspective is that it upsets the natural order of things that we’ve become accustomed to where a man who has engaged in a marital infidelity can explain that she “threw herself” at him, that it meant nothing to him, that really she is irrelevant and she should disappear in order to preserve the status quo.

It is a status quo where sexuality is viewed as something a woman gives and a man receives. This creates a responsibility on the man’s part, unless it can be demonstrated that the woman gives so easily that it seems as though she actually enjoys it. Therefore he owes her nothing. We do not have to consider her feelings. She’s an inconvenient problem. It is generally the man who gets to define what category the woman inhabits. There are a lot of women who have become adept at playing by these rules as well. Slut shaming often comes from other women.

Monica Lewinsky is roughly my age. I followed her ordeal with interest. What I remember vividly were the fat jokes at her expense. I was built like her at that age, and the idea behind the jokes seemed to be that if you failed to be sufficiently decorative you didn’t matter. Even the most sympathetic readings at the time turned on the idea that she was chubby, and she had “thrown herself” at the president because of a lack of self-esteem. Why is a man’s extra-marital affair so rarely read as a cry for help and evidence of his woeful sense of self-esteem?

I remember how they tried to write her off as a deluded stalker, and I remember feeling a certain admiration at her strength of character. Clinton was clearly prepared to throw her under whatever busses he needed to, while she was still fighting to protect the secret of their relationship even at the expense of her public reputation. They said there was no relationship– it was all in her head. She was emotionally unstable. And she said nothing.

I remember thinking how sordid anyone’s sexual relationships, no matter how healthy, might sound when presented in the format of the Starr Report.  Sexual acts always sound ridiculous when you spell them out. They make sense in context. Listening to the Linda Tripp tapes, which were all over the news, made me imagine my own conversations with confidants while in the throes of my own questionable relationships. We all make fools of ourselves in the arena of love and sex. (Cue that song by The Main Ingredient).

Here’s how Megan Garber, writing in The Atlantic, describes the background of the Trip tapes:

Lewinsky describes the hot-and-cold nature of her relationship with Clinton—she still refers to him as “Bill,” and sometimes as “B.C.”—during the period when he was running for a second term. She suggests that his behavior toward her, in which he variously gave her gifts (Leaves of Grass), showered her with compliments, and ignored her, going silent for long periods of time, is what ultimately led her to share the details of the affair with Tripp. “I had this nagging insecurity,” Lewinsky tells The Clinton Affair’s camera: “Maybe he just did all of these things these last six months because he was trying to keep me quiet during the election. How stupid am I that I believed this, that I bought this? I felt so deflated, and so desperate. And those were the conditions, along with some other things, that led to me confiding in Linda Tripp.”

I, too, had been in relationships– more than one at that point– where I was more invested than the guy was. My most formative relationship was like that. It was not an abuse of power in the sense that he was not by boss, not in a superior social position, in fact he was a year younger than me, a sophomore when I was a junior in college.

He enjoyed the sex and play enough to want to keep me around when he was in the mood for that, but he wanted me to vanish when he did not. He wanted to have pleasure with no responsibility. He wanted his options open, in case something better came along. So we broke up, and he came back, over and over. I was invested enough that I put everything on hold so I would be free in case he decided it would be an on-again moment instead of off-again. Here’s a poem I wrote about it:

The Cord

I find that I am here again
back where I began
not long ago I scaled great heights
I soared with excitement and joy
never again
I believed
to fall

But here I am again
back where I began

So this joy was no peak,
but the crest of a circle
reaching the top
I was destined to slide round
and from here, at the bottom
there is nowhere but up

But what keeps me in this circle?

It is this cord that I have tethered to you.
I spin, always around you

Perhaps this time,
when I get my momentum going
I will let go of the string
the centrifugal force will act
and instead of rolling back

I will fly…

 

You can’t tell anyone to shrug it off when they’re in it. You just have to live through it– the balm of time.

But that ill-fated romance had a big effect on me. He used many techniques that made me feel I was the one with the problem for wanting something more stable. I was “too clingy.” I was “too emotional” and “needy.” To call this “gaslighting” I think gives him too much intent. I don’t think he had a grand vision of how to manipulate me, he just wanted to have what he wanted and to believe he was doing nothing wrong. He put it on me, and as he was an immoveable object, I tried to adapt myself. I was determined to learn from the criticisms he put on me how to become more loveable.

In retrospect, this set me up to accept a similar dynamic the next time around, even to seek it out, to prove to myself that I had learned and that I now could master the situation.

I found myself, when watching The Clinton Affair, wondering if Lewinsky’s earlier affair with a married man who had been her teacher was not– as it has normally been presented–an example of her bad character but a foundational unhealthy relationship that primed her to want another unequal relationship–so unequal that she could test her emotional mettle. But maybe I’m projecting.

This was all long ago, and I had the benefit of being a fool mostly in private.  I have to believe I am not alone in this. We don’t live up to our highest ideals, and so we use public shaming to re-affirm what out values are. We put our collective foibles on Lewinsky’s head so she could take the abuse for us all. Her reincarnation as an advocate for people who are bullied and shamed is quite brilliant. She could never outrun her undesired fame, and so she found a way to put it to use. Good on her. She is good in front of the camera, and who knows, maybe she will yet develop a public persona in which her past is only a distant memory.

Reflecting on the documentary, I realized how much that episode colored the stories I felt compelled to tell as a writer. Nowhere is that more evident than in my second novel Identity Theft (written pre #MeToo) wherein the female protagonist has what she thinks is a consentual affair with a prominent man and is disbelieved to the point that she is jailed as an emotionally unstable stalker. But I see it also in the story of Oscar’s Ghost in the way defending Oscar Wilde seemed to require vilifying Lord Alfred Douglas. What happens when someone’s private life becomes a public story? Who gets to decide what it means?

 

 

 

Happy 162nd George Bernard Shaw

Shaw Gifts One of the things that set me off on the journey that became the book “Oscar’s Ghost” was reading George Bernard Shaw’s correspondence with Lord Alfred Douglas edited by Mary Hyde.

It is a book that fascinated me, not only for how vividly the letters revealed the characters of their writers, but also for what seemed to me to be an uplifting message about friendship between people who have nothing in common. Shaw and Douglas sparred over the editing of Frank Harris’s “Oscar Wilde.” Oscar was a topic that tended to bring out Douglas’s defensiveness and prickliness. But they always came back to treating each other with affection.

Shaw called Douglas “Childe Alfred” and coined one of my favorite descriptions of an aspect of Douglas’s personality that remained into his senior years: “blazing boyishness.”  He wrote to Mrs. Alfred Douglas “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning. But you know this a thousand times better than I do.”

Shaw, who also had a difficult relationship with his father, was sympathetic to Douglas’s familial bitterness, but he did not have patience for the grudge Douglas continued to hold against Robert Ross.

“Ross did not get his testimonial for nothing,” he wrote, referring to a public letter of support signed by hundreds of luminaries, including Shaw after Douglas had tried to expose Ross’s homosexuality in a libel action. The testimonial had always stuck in Douglas’s craw.

“Only a great deal of good nature on his part could have won over that distinguished and very normal list of names to give public support to a man who began with so very obvious a mark of the beast on him. A passage in one of my prefaces on the influence of artistically cultivated men on youths who have been starved in that respect…was founded on a conversation I had with Ross one afternoon at Chartres in which he described the effect produced on him by Wilde, who, in the matter of style, always sailed with all his canvas stretched. Let Ross alone: the world has had enough of that squabble.”

He later wrote to Douglas, “The one thing that no man can afford, and that nobody but a fool insists on carrying is a grievance. Besides, what claim had Oscar on you or anyone else that it should be a reproach to us that we did not spend the rest of our lives holding his hand after he disgraced himself?”

(Of course they did have claims on one another which could not be acknowledged in that era.)

If you have not seen it, George Bernard Shaw wrote a very interesting letter in 1889 in the wake of the Cleveland Street scandal. It was sent to the editor of Truth, but was not published. He argued that “we may presently be saddled with the moral responsibility for monstrously severe punishments inflicted…[on those] whose conduct, however nasty and ridiculous, has been perfectly within their admitted right as individuals.”

After the familiar discussion of the ancient Greeks and the culture in schools, which always came up in such conversations in the era, Shaw appealed to the champions of individual rights “to join me in a protest against a law by which two adult men can be sentenced to twenty years penal servitude for a private act, freely consented and desired by both, which concerns themselves alone.”

Being Shaw, he brought his argument around to socialism and women’s rights. “My friend, Mr. Parke… is menaced with proceedings which would never have been dreamt of had he advanced charges–socially much ore serious–of polluting rivers with factory refuse, or paying women wages that needed to be eked out to subsistence point by prostitution.”

It is fascinating then to read Shaw’s discussions with Lord Alfred Douglas– who was the conservative of the pair–a believer in sin and the evils of liberalism and women’s suffrage–debating the events of Oscar Wilde’s life and their meaning, among other topics. (Shaw had the chutzpah to believe he understood Wilde much better that Douglas did.)

So again, I recommend the book, and raise a glass to Shaw this evening, won’t you?

 

 

 

 

A Crime to be Different

There is a question that has come up lately when I talk about my book. Rupert Everett’s new film The Happy Prince and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years as well as my own Oscar’s Ghost all explore the aftermath of Wilde’s arrest and incarceration in different ways. Why has this topic suddenly become of interest?

“Sudden” is, of course, not quite the right word. As I understand it The Happy Prince took 10 years to make. I spent 6 years on Oscar’s Ghost and I assume The Unrepentant Years was not written overnight. That makes it all the more interesting that, indeed, this story does seem of the moment.

I was thinking about this when I read a quote from the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov that came up as a Facebook meme. Baryshnikov said that this era of Brexit and Trumpism is one in which it is “a crime to be different.”

When we convict someone of the crime of being different what happens next? What happens to the person who was punished after the public has moved on to other worries? What happens to the people who love him? In an era like ours it feels important to stare this in the face.

For those of us who believe in an inclusive society these are depressing times. We have gotten through hard times before, which is in some ways comforting, but it neglects an important point: We got through it collectively, but many individuals did not.

This is Wrong

When I was in elementary school, I forget now which grade, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, and that led me to read more about World War II and Hitler. I can’t imagine what I read– a girl in school– but I do remember that I wrote a little essay or a book report on the subject. It concluded with the line, “But that could not happen here.”

When I got my paper back, my teacher had written only one comment in red pen in the margin. “Why not?”

Why not?

Everything else about that time is fuzzy. I don’t remember the teacher’s face, what classroom I was in, or what the assignment had been. I do remember the comment. It shook my childhood sense of certainty because I didn’t have an answer.

It might be the first time in my life that I was startled out of a lazy way of thinking. It was easy enough, in school, to assume that bad things that happened in other places and times happened because of flaws that we–in our great democracy– had overcome.

“Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge as representatives for all mankind.” -Frances Fitzgerald, American Myth, American Reality

The moral of the story of World War II was that we had been on the right side. The moral was that we were not like them. If someone tried to stir up such deadly passions we would see it. We would stop it. Our system would not allow it to happen.

Why not?

I grew up in the north, in a suburban school, where the children of Detroit’s “white flight” were raised. We learned about slavery and the civil war, and the moral of the story was that we had been on the right side. We were not like the people who held slaves. We fought against it. If something like that happened in our midst, we would recognize it. We would be the ones to stand up against it.

It all seemed easy.

We each want to believe that had we been in Germany as the Nazis came to power, that we would be among those who stood against it, not those who joined, cheered it on or in a time of great peril said nothing. In The Sound of Music, we would be like Captain von Trapp, who is willing to give up everything for his principles, and not like young Rolf, who feels manly and important in his new role as Nazi soldier.

Why not?

I do not mean to focus my argument on Hitler. There have been episodes throughout history and around the world of fear being stoked, and blame being placed on the outsiders or the enemy within, with violent consequences. Before the Rwandan genocide, Tutsis were called “cockroaches.”

In our own country we remember the Salem witch trials as an example of hysteria and injustice. Even though it happened here, we feel far from it. We usually go away thinking, “How wonderful that we are no longer superstitious like that.”

Us vs. Them. Humans vs. Witches, People vs. Animals. The ones who need to be protected, and the monsters among us who need to be destroyed.

Are we to believe that we are so well-governed, so good, so moral, so rational, that we are singularly immune to these forces?

It should not be controversial to say that seeing an American leader standing in front of a crowd, leading them to chant that a group of people are “animals” is frightening. We’ve seen where this sort of thing can lead.

It should not be controversial.

We’ve been desensitized by degrees. Birtherism’s racism was subtext. The Wall was symbolic.  People can be blind to subtext, it can be denied.

Do you remember when members of the GOP were shocked and stunned by candidate Trump’s suggestion of a Muslim ban, and how forcefully people like Paul Ryan spoke against it?

 

That was when he was confident that Republicans agreed with him. He did not think this stance was controversial. And then the Muslim-ban-candidate became the party’s nominee and the assertive speeches about how this was not what we stand for evaporated.

Once we accepted that the Muslim ban was not beyond the pale, it opened the door to accept more and more. “Good people on both sides of the Nazi rally” comes and goes.

And so it hardly raises an eyebrow when President of the United States stands at a rally and paints a picture of dangerous monsters turning our cities into “Blood-stained killing fields. Savagely burning, raping, and mutilating.” Nor does the suggestion that anyone who questions his rhetoric is on the side of chaotic, marauding evil, an enemy to be defeated too.

We’re all in this together? Humbug.

Eventually it seems unremarkable to see the Attorney General announcing a policy of separating children from their parents at the border, even though somewhere in the back of your mind, there may be a vague sense that things like this have happened before. What are you thinking of? That scene from Rabbit Proof Fence?

In Australia the indigenous children taken from their parents were called “the Stolen Generations.” But we don’t need to look so far away. Indigenous children were taken from their families right here in United States.

Is there a similar logic at work today?

In his speech announcing his run for president, Trump said Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”  The recording of that quote is so familiar now that you can hear its cadence, like a familiar song. “Some, I assume, are good people.” Whether you oppose or agree, there it is, an earworm. It frames the debate.

Under these terms, taking babies from their mothers makes sense, doesn’t it? Aren’t we just protecting the innocents from the criminals? Aren’t they better off? Why should they stay with the drug dealers and rapists just because, as a friend of mine put it, the children’s mother happens to have “popped them out.”

There is only one way to say it:  This way of thinking is wrong.

Jack Holmes, in Esquire wrote:

But perhaps the most unnerving portion [of Trump’s recent rally] was the call and response, where the president’s supporters dutifully followed him down the road of calling other human beings “animals.” They did so gleefully, as they once engaged in back-and-forths about The Wall and how Mexico Is Going to Pay For It…It was a sign that the faithful are taking to the new tactics with a dark enthusiasm…

It is painfully obvious that this president has no problem singling out the very worst among undocumented immigrants and holding them up as representative of the group. He wants MS-13, and Kate Steinle’s killer, and all the other worst elements to be the face of the undocumented population. It’s all he talks about, until the only image that appears in his supporters’ minds when they hear the term “illegal immigrant” is someone of a certain complexion who has committed a violent crime. Does it still seem worth debating whom, exactly, Trump is calling an “animal”?

Perhaps, in the short term, he’s merely hoping to boost Republican midterm turnout through the raw power of fear. The risk, however, is that this spills into the kind of fervor that leads people to do terrible things—things they might hesitate to do to a person, but not to an animal.

President: They’re not human beings. They’re not human beings.

The crowd boos.

President: And this is why we call the blood-thirsty MS-13 gang members exactly the name I used last week. What was the name?

The Crowd cheers: Animals!

 

This is wrong.   This    is    wrong.