History

15 Bookish Battles

There is an expression that you should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. Writers are an emotionally sensitive lot, and the solitude and reflection necessary to the profession can just as equally give way to obsessing over perceived slights and injustices. These, in turn, poduce some of history’s most highly articulate invective. As the author of Oscar’s Ghost (just released in paperback) I explored the long and bitter feud between poet Lord Alfred Douglas and essayist and literary executor Robert Ross over Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript De Profundis. Here are 15 more literary feuds for your consideration.

Diminishing Intellect: Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett

Samira Ahmed, writing for the BBC, called Arnold Bennett “the most successful British celebrity you’ve never heard of.” He wrote more than thirty novels and a dozen plays. It is estimated that he wrote half a million words a year. He had great political and cultural influence and when he died in 1931, the headlines proclaimed “History is Bound to Rank Him Among the Greatest of His Period.” So why is he so obscure today? A large part of the blame can be laid at the feet of Virginia Woolf who, along with the Bloomsbury set of modern writers, trashed him both before and after his death. Bennett is perhaps best known to day not for his own work, but for the way Virginia Woolf used him as a foil.

In her 1919 essay “Modern Novelist,” Woolf heaped scorn on the popular authors of the Edwardian era, including Bennett. Bennett came from a working class background, but had become wealthy through his popular and prolific writing. Like many a writer who counts on his work to pay his bills, his output was a mix of serious novels and middlebrow newspaper columns. He often defended the notion that a concern for the market did not make one a lesser writer.  Woolf’s snobbishness rubbed him the wrong way and he sometimes referred to her as the “Queen of the Highbrows.”

Woolf’s distaste for Bennett became more pronounced with the release of his 1920 Our Women: Chapters in the Sex Discord. Bennett considered himself to be a feminist, but his was a 1920s form of feminism. He championed women’s right to economic freedom and education and railed against the exploitation of female shop workers. On the other hand he advanced the case that men were better writers, philosophers and thinkers than women. (Women taking “men’s jobs” in the literary sphere was more of a personal threat than a woman managing a store.) “With the possible exception of Emily Bronte no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men.”

Woolf was working on Jacob’s Room when she read a review of Bennett’s book and sent a spirited letter to The New Statesman in rebuttal, “…though pessimism about the other sex is always delightful and invigorating, it seems a little sanguine of Mr. Bennett… to indulge in it with such certainty on the evidence before them.” She added that while readers might be tempted to infer that “the intellect of the male sex is steadily diminishing, it would be unwise, until they have more evidence than the great war and the great peace supply, to announce it as fact.”

Bennett’s response came in the form of a review of Jacob’s Room.

I have seldom rend a cleverer book than Virginia Woolf’s ‘Jacob’s Room,’ a novel which has made a great stir in a small world. It is packed and bursting with originality, and it is exquisitely written. But the characters do not vitally survive in the mind because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness. I regard this book as characteristic of the new novelists who have recently gained the attention of the alert and the curious, and I admit that for myself I cannot yet descry any coming big novelists.

Woolf responded with a lecture in Cambridge in 1924, which she later published under the title of Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. The text is still an English department staple. In her lecture she claimed there had been a turning point in the history of the novel, she asserted the superiority of her own writing style and proclaimed Bennett a shallow example of the old ways of thinking. “Mrs. Woolf’s essay came loose from its context, and has been read as if it were a complete, objective statement about the differences between two writing generations. But in fact, it is neither complete nor objective: it is simply one blow stuck in a quarrel that ran for more than ten years and was far more personal than generational,” wrote Samuel Hynes. In any case, Woolf seems to have had the last word.

A Punch in the Eye: Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez

What happened between these Nobel-prize winning authors is well known because it happened in public at a 1976 film premiere.  Why it happened is a bit fuzzier. The writers had been close friends in the 1960s, According to the Guardian, Garcia Marquez went up to Vargas Llosa with open arms, said, “Mario!” and got a punch in the eye  Llosa shouted something that has mostly been reported as, “How dare you come and greet me after what you did to Patricia in Barcelona!,” Patricia was Vargas Llosa’s wife. Marquez later called a friend and told him his side of the story, claiming he had no idea why Llosa had socked him and asking to have his black eye photographed for posterity.

The Independent tells it this way:

Mario strayed. He fell in love with a beautiful Swedish air stewardess whom he met while travelling. He left his wife and moved to Stockholm.

Distraught, his wife Patricia went to see her husband’s best friend, Gabriel. After discussing the matter with his wife, Mercedes, he advised Patricia to divorce Mario. And then he consoled her. No one else quite knows what form this consolation took…. Eventually Mario returned to his wife, who told him of Gabriel’s advice to her, and of his consolation.

Vargas Llosa and Garcia Marquez had political differences as well. Llosa called Maraquez “Castro’s courtesan.” After the punch heard ’round the world the two lions of Latin American literature didn’t speak to each other for another 30 years.

Using a Club as a Club: William Thackeray and Charles Dickens

Illustration for Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

In 1858, Thackeray and Dickens were two of England’s best known writers. There had always been a certain rivalry between them, but that year it broke out into outright hostility thanks to a young journalist Edmund Yates who had written an unflattering profile of Thackeray for a small magazine called “Town Talk.” Both Thackeray and Yates were members of a gentleman’s club called The Garrick Club. Club membership was an important social distinction, and Thackeray took offense at being so mistreated by a fellow club member and he tried to get Yates expelled.

Yates believed he was outgunned by the author of Vanity Fair, so he sought the help of his mentor, Charles Dickens. Dickens was happy to intervene because not only did he think Yates had been wronged, he suspected Thackeray had been spreading rumors about his relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan. The affair had caused Dickens’ marriage to fall apart. You can read some of the letters produced by their squabble at Lapham’s Quarterly.

Yates lost the club battle, and continued to attack Thackeray in pamphlets and articles over the course of the next year. Most people assumed Dickens was behind the campaign, and when this threatened his reputation he finally convinced Yates to stop, but the relationship between Thackeray and Dickens remained sour until shortly before Thackaray’s death.

Bone of Contention: Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes

Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, two luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, met in 1925 and quickly became the greatest of friends. Although it was not a romance, their friendship had a special intensity. Alice Walker wrote of them “Each was to the other an affirming example of what black people could be like: wild, crazy, creative, spontaneous, at ease with who they are, and funny. A lot of attention has been given to their breakup … but very little to the pleasure Zora and Langston must have felt in each other’s company.”

So a collaboration on a play to be called Mule Bone seemed natural. Unfortunately, something went wrong. Scholars have debated the underlying cause for years. Langston Hughes suggested it was sparked by a kind of love triangle. Ruthe Sheffey suggested that creative differences were more to blame and that Huges changed the central conflict in Mule Bone from religious and political power to a love triangle.

Whatever set it off, the differences were irreconcilable. They each wrote their own versions and copyrighted them. Hurston refused to acknowledge any contributions from Hughes in her finished version. Lawyers were brought in. The friendship never recovered. The play was not performed until long after both writers were dead. If you’d like to know more about the friendship and its unraveling Yuval Taylor has just released a book called Zora and Langston.

Queers and Crypto-Nazis: Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley

Christopher Hitchens, a friend of Vidal’s once said there was “nothing feigned about their mutual antagonism. They really did despise each other, it comes from a deep well.” In many ways Vidal and Buckley were very much alike, two upper-class public intellectuals and authors with transatlantic accents. But they from opposite ends of the political spectrum. In respect to each other, Vidal and Buckley are best known for a series of televised political debates surrounding the 1968 political conventions. Both were brilliant and witty and they had an instant on screen anti-chemistry. As the New York Times put it:

Literary aristocrats and ideological foes, Vidal and Buckley attracted millions of viewers to what, at the time, was a highly irregular experiment: the spectacle of two brilliant minds slugging it out — once, almost literally — on live television. It was witty, erudite and ultimately vicious, an early intrusion of full-contact punditry into the staid pastures of the evening news.

The series of debates were a thrilling display of heightened discourse and low blows. They culminated in a famous moment in which Buckley was goaded into losing his temper, “Listen to me you queer,” he seethed, “stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

The moment has been dissected by The New Yorker, Lapham’s Quarterly and in many other literary magazines.

After that appearance Buckley felt horrible about how he had lost it on television and he wrote an article for Esquire to explain what had happened from his point of view. Instead of putting it to bed, it revived it. Gore Vidal responded with his own article that strongly implied Buckley was a closeted homosexual. (He later wrote a fictional character based on Buckley who in spite of being married with children was a notorious sodomite.) Buckley sued Vidal for libel and the case dragged on in the court for years before Buckley finally dropped it. But the rancor did not end until Buckley’s death.

When Buckley died in 2008, Vidal said, “I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.”

The feud is the subject of a documentary film “The Best of Enemies.”

The Case of the Bitter Best Sellers: Marie Corelli and Hall Caine

il_340x270.1411831718_f6qcCorelli and Caine were two of the best selling authors of their day.  Corelli was by far the best seller with an average of 100,000 novels a year while Caine trailed with a still respectable 45,000 a year. By contrast those other writers of popular fiction, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle sold about 15,000 novels a year each. Corelli and Caine were early examples of the type of writers who are blessed with brisk sales and mocked by poorer selling but presumably more serious artists. Their dislike of each other began before Corelli was even established. Caine was the first reader of A Romance of Two Worlds, a novel Corelli had written about the battle between evolution and the Biblical account of creation. Caine rejected it and Corelli never forgot it. George Bentley eventually published it and it became a commercial sensation surprising even its author.

Corelli and Caine “were both self-centred and supersensitive, imagining slights where none were intended,” wrote Annie S. Swan. The newspapers were quick to play up the feud, especially when Corelli published “The Master Christian” widely believed to be a commentary on Caine’s book “The Christian.” Corelli brushed off this speculation by saying she couldn’t possibly be parodying Caine as she did not read his books on principle. Corelli’s admiring biographer was forced to admit that she endorsed a story about Caine “which it would have been better perhaps to withhold.”

Battle over Betjeman: A.N. Wilson and Bevis Hiller

Imagine spending decades working on a three-volume, 1,800 word biography only to have it panned by a prolific writer who then puts out his own biography that gets more attention. Bevis Hiller didn’t have to imagine. He spent 25 years researching the poet John Betjeman. Volume 2 of his magnum opus was given to A. N. Wilson, who was known (as the New York Times put it) for the “clever sting of his insults.” He reviewed it in The Spectator calling it “a hopeless mishmash of a book.” When Hiller started to see advance publicity praising Wilson’s own forthcoming biography of Betjeman calling it “the big one,” he became furious and he got his revenge in a most creative fashion. 

After years of research Hiller had become fluent in Betjeman’s epistolary style. He crafted a steamy love letter ostensibly from Bentjeman to writer Honor Tracy. Hiller invented a cousin for Tracy,  a woman named Eve de Harben, and she wrote to Wilson saying that she had discovered this heretofore unpublished letter in a private collection. Wilson put the letter in his book without noticing an important detail. The letter was an acrostic that spelled out “A.N. Wilson is a shit.” The two writers made up in 2013, a little more than a decade after the feud began. They met for lunch and exchanged autographed books. “Dear Bevis, the best “hoax” ever!’ Wilson wrote in his gift. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, Andrew, Bevis reconciled’,” wrote Hillier

Head-Butts in the Greenroom: Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer

In December 1971 two authors came to blows in the greenroom of the Dick Cavett Show. Norman Mailer was a little bit sauced and itching for a fight with Gore Vidal over a review he had written of Mailer’s The Prisoner of Sex in The New York Review of Books. Vidal had compared Norman Mailer with Henry Miller and Charles Manson — “3M for short” —and said Mailer’s work represented “a continuum in the brutal and violent treatment of women.” Mailer actually headbutted his rival before taking the stage. I could describe what happened next, but it all took place in front of cameras. You can read Dick Cavett’s recap, or watch for yourself.

Clashing Canadians: Irving Layton and Elspeth Cameron

In 1985, The Montreal Gazette labeled this conflict “The Brawler vs. The Scholar” and “The CanLit equivalent of Norman Mailer knocking out Gore Vidal at a New York Cocktail party.” Poet Irving Layton was, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Controversial and outspoken.” He wrote “angry, gritty, romantic and erotic poems in an attempt to, in his words, ‘disturb the accumulated complacencies of people.'”  At issue was a biography written by the professorial Cameron. Although Irving had authorized it he was incensed by the result, which he thought was mean-spirited, Anti-Semitic and full of errors. From then on, according to his last wife, Anna Potter, who wrote a biography called “Good as Gone” Layton referred to Cameron as “The Whore.” He published his own competing memoirs, and his supporters made lists of what they saw as mistakes and outright fabrications in Cameron’s book. Cameron told an audience in Montreal that she had been getting hate mail from Layton every day for three months. her publisher sent a sampling of some of the most colorful to the papers. In one he insisted: “It would have profited me  more had I hung a tape recorder from a cow’s neck and tickled her to elicit an appreciative moo.” Layton claimed he’d only sent Cameron five letters and two or three post cards and none of them could be called hate mail. The public feud ran its course eventually but Patterson remained bitter about it and blamed Cameron for ruining Layton’s health. Layton passed away in 2006 at the age of 93.

Horrible, Whimsical Stuff: A A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse

These two authors clashed, but then, according to Wodehouse at least, Milne clashed with everyone. Wodehouse once said that he had formed a “Try to Like A.A. Milne Club.” Only one man joined, but he quit a week later. “Since joining the association,” he explained, “I have met Mr. Milne.” In spite of Milne’s prickliness, in the 1920s, when they were both trying to make their names as comedy writers, he and Wodehouse got along well enough. They played on the same cricket team and they collaborated on the adaptation of Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. Then war came– literally. In the lead up to the second world war, Milne, who had previously been a pacifist changed his tune in support of the war effort. Wodehouse remained apolitical. He had the misfortune of living in France with his wife when the Germans invaded in 1940 and they taken to an internment camp. Two of Wodehouse’s German friends from Hollywood were in the country at the time, working on Nazi propaganda. They gave Wodehouse the option of doing a series of lectures on German radio in exchange for his release. He agreed. He tried to make his broadcasts light and humorous, but this came across as flippancy. This did not sit at all well with the British public. Wodehouse was denounced as a traitor on the floor of the House of Commons. While he was cleared of any formal charges, his career unraveled and he fled to America never to return. No one was more critical than Milne who wrote scathing letters to the Daily Telegraph. Wodehouse, he wrote, “has encouraged in himself a natural lack of interest in ‘politics’—‘politics’ being all the things grown-ups talk about at dinner when one is hiding under the table. Things, for instance, like the last war, which found and kept him in America; and postwar taxes, which chased him back and forth across the Atlantic.” Wodehouse felt his reputation might have been preserved if Milne had not been beating the drum, “that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck.”

Wodehouse poured his resentment into his writing. In 1949, he published The Mating Season and has Bertie Wooster called on to recite Milne’s poems at a village concert. “A fellow who comes on a platform and starts reciting about Christopher Robin going hoppity-hoppity-hop (or alternatively saying his prayers) does not do so from sheer wantonness but because he is a helpless victim of circumstances beyond his control.”

Later that year he became even more cutting. Milne was an author of detective fiction, but he was best known for his Winnie the Pooh stories that featured a fictional version of his son Christopher Robin even though Milne spent little time with his son in real life. In Rodney has a Relapse, the title character is a writer who stops writing detective stories in order to write poems about his young son Timothy. The narrator asks, “Do you know where Rodney is at this moment? Up in the nursery, bending over his son Timothy’s cot, gathering material for a poem about the unfortunate little rat while asleep….Horrible, whimsical stuff, that….Well, when I tell you that he refers to him throughout as ‘Timothy Bobbin,’ you will appreciate what we are up against. I am not a weak man, but I confess that I shuddered.”

That got the anger out of his system. When he learned that Milne was sick in 1954 he wrote, “Poor Milne. I was shocked to hear of his illness. I’m afraid there seems little chance of him getting any better. It is ghastly to think of anyone who wrote such gay stuff ending his life like this. He has always been about my favorite author.”

Milne never forgave Wodehouse. He died in 1956.

The Importance of Stealing Earnest: Oscar Wilde and Charles Brookfield

This was a minor, but consequential, sub-feud in the battle between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas’s father The Marquess of Queensberry. (A conflict that produced an inordinate number of sub-feuds.) Playwright and actor Charles Brookfield had always been in Oscar Wilde’s shadow. An 1893 review, for example, says of him, “Certainly no man has suffered more from popular indifference. Of this comedian, we may indeed use the phrase dear to ‘our Oscar,’ and say that in playgoers’ estimation he is ‘a man of no importance.'”

Brookfield had written and produced a spiteful burlesque of “Lady Windemere’s Fan” called “The Poet and the Puppets” in 1892. The parody paints Wilde as a poser who steals other writer’s ideas. Wilde had taken it all with good humor, which only annoyed his rival.

Brookfield became especially bitter when he read glowing reviews of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Three years before, Brookfield had written a comedy called “Godpapa,” which had been reasonably well-received. “Godpapa” starred Brookfield and an actor named Charles Hawtrey. It was the story of a young man named Reggie who relies on the made-up illness of an acquaintance named Bunbury (played by Brookfield himself) in order to do what he likes. The plot revolves around negotiating a marriage and balancing secret identities. It also had an imaginary brother named Earnest among its characters. Wilde was probably serving up a touch of parody of his own with his choice of Earnest character names. It must have been, to his mind at least, a good natured jest. Wilde, even before the play was complete, envisioned Brookfield’s friend Charles Hawtrey, star of “Godpapa,” for one of the main roles in Earnest.

Brookfield’s long simmering resentment, combined with Wilde’s sparkling triumph with a better version of his own play pushed him over the edge. His anger happened to coincide with Queensberry’s very public battle with Wilde. It just so happened that a crooked solicitor that Queensberry had hired to get dirt on Wilde was married to an actress in Hawtrey’s company. Brookfield and Hawtrey agreed to act as Queensberry’s spies and gather dirt on their nemesis, and once Wilde was arrested on a charge of “gross indecency with male persons” they went about fanning the flames out the outrage.

A Snob, A Sot and a Sponge: Mark Twain and Bret Harte

In 1876, Bret Harte was the more established of the two writers. Harte was known for novels and short stories that chronicled the lives of miners in the California gold rush. He was also editor of the Overland Monthly, a journal of which Twain was a frequent contributor. A collaboration between the two western authors seemed natural and they decided to adapt a poem of Harte’s about Chinese mine workers for a stage production called “Ah Sin.” It was an era of increasing prejudice and controversy over the immigrants. The writers clashed almost immediately over how the titular character Ah Sin should be portrayed. Should it be a commentary on these social tensions or should the character be more of a stereotype designed to illustrate life in mining towns? Along with these creative differences, there was also an argument of some sort over money. By the time the premiere of the play rolled around the two men couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other. Harte skipped rehearsals and attended the premiere, Twain attended rehearsals and skipped the premiere. Whatever had passed between them Twain could not let it go. When he hard Harte might be in line for a diplomatic post he wrote to President Garfield to try to stop the appointment. He asked W. D. Howells to do the same, “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is bring full of treachery.” Harte did not respond publicly to Twain’s frequent slanders.  He died in 1902, but Twain’s bad feelings lived on.  After Harte’s death, Twain was asked to take part in a benefit for the novelist’s cash strapped daughter. Twain refused.

The Peeved Poet: Laughton Osborn and William Leete Stone

visionofrubetaep00osbo_0171After Stone panned Osborn’s novel The Confessions of a Poet, by Himself, Osborn spent most of 1837 venting his spleen in the form of rhyming couplets. The result, in 1838, was Visions of Rubeta. Edgar Allan Poe called it the best American satire ever written, although “very censurably indecent—filthy is, perhaps, the more appropriate term.” Rubeta, “the Grand Absurd” a thinly veiled version of Stone, as editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser defends an abess who has been renting out her novitiates as prostitutes. “Tis he!” the abbess says of Rubeta, “the ass foretold me in my dream! Be bold, I see, now, now, thy triumph nigh! / I see my ass spirt fountains to the sky!”

When the real Stone started to dabble in mesmerism Osborn found the perfect subject for mockery. You can read some excerpts from Osborn’s poetic revenge at Lampham’s Quarterly.

Psychic Plagarism: Marie Darriussecq and Camille Laurens

In 2007, Marie Darrieussecq published a first-person novel called Tom est mort, which dealt with the pain a woman felt at the death of her young son. Shortly thereafter, another French author, Camille Laurens published a scathing article in La Revue littéraire accusing Darrieussecq of stealing her life story calling it “a sort of psychic plagrism.” Laurens had published a work of autobiographical fiction, Philippe, in 1995 in which she recounted the trauma of losing her own new-born son. The two authors shared an editor, and Larens felt Darrieussecq’s novel had modeled on her own story. This kicked off a very public quarrel between the two authors. Their editor felt compelled to pick sides and he released Laurens from her contract. He did it in a very public way, announcing his decision in Le Monde, the newspaper of the literary elite.

This was followed by, in the words of The Guardian, the trading of “elevated Gallic insults, to the scandalised fascination of Paris.”

Three years later, both women published responses to the events and their aftermath, Laurens in another work of thinly veiled fiction and Darrieussecq in a long and detailed study of the history of accusations of plagiarism.

“There is a moment when you have to get angry in order to survive. I wrote this book as a kind of therapy and to help future writers who are accused,” Darrieussecq told L’Express. “I am in a huge rage, and I feel that my honour as a writer has been maligned. This is the first time in my life that I have written a book without any pleasure.”

Money Changes Everything: L. Frank Baum and W.W. Denslow

copyright_page_of_the_wonderful_wizard_of_oz_1899Writer L. Frank Baum and illustrator W.W. Denslow first joined forces in the 1890s when Denslow provided drawings for Baum’s trade magazine “The Show Window.” They soon decided to team up on a  book of children’s poetry Father Goose. No publisher was willing to take a risk on the book as they wished to do it, with lavish color illustrations, so they shared the cost of printing. It went on to sell an amazing 75,000 copies. A year later they did it again for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and shared the copyright. It was an even bigger hit. Trouble began when they decided to adapt the story for the stage. They fought over whether the drawings or the text were responsible for the book’s success and how much of the theatrical royalties they should each get. That put an end to their friendship. Denslow came out OK financially. He had made so much money he was able to buy an island off the coast of Bermuda and declare himself King.

 

Stay tuned, another list of literary combattants is in the works…

 

The Mystic Nature of Places

Years ago, long before I’d written any books, I was walking in London. A stranger came up to me and he said he could see my aura. He said the spirits were talking to him and they had a message for me. They said I should be writing and I wasn’t. They said that “the mystic nature of places” was how I would connect.

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My first novel was all about the mystic nature of places. It was about mountains and cathedrals, spaces of such grandeur that they inspire awe. The grand cathedrals, like the mountains, are ancient enough to inspire temporal as well as spatial awe. In their presence you become small and for a moment you are reminded of your proper relationship to the forces of the universe– humility, reverence, wonder, gratitude. There is an interruption. A call to contemplation and silence.

Do you remember the first time you experienced that sense of displacement and image1wonder? I do. I was a 16 year old exchange student and my host family took me to Notre Dame. I had not toured Europe or seen great stone cathedrals. I was not Catholic. So the power of the space surprised me.

I lived outside Paris in 1985 and 86, before the days of ubiquitous photography. This fading snapshot is the only picture I got. Looking at this picture, I see that there must have been crowds, but I don’t remember them. I remember the negative space, the silence, the sunlight streaming through the rose window, the candles lit for memory. I wondered, “How didn’t I know this? That a building could do this?”

I tried to look back on my old diaries from the period and realized quickly that at 16 I would not have had the language for what I remember feeling. But perhaps I had to be that age to experience the fullness of that moment and to remember it as transformative.

There are utilitarian places–places created to be filled by people who are busy doing things. Then there are places that are created for people to experience. The architecture itself defines the mood and the spirit you are supposed to have inside. The spirit is waiting for you before you enter.

A grand cathedral is different from a mountain. It is the embodiment of history, culture and values. As you stand in your smallness, you realize that you only hold this splendid torch of life for a moment and you have a responsibility to pass the torch, to breathe in all that the walls contain, the years of art and culture, all we have said and painted and sung; our baptisms, weddings, funerals. You are small, but the weight of all of these fleeting moments is huge.

No one knows who first built Notre Dame de Paris. But whoever they are, they are there centuries later.

I must have carried that moment with me when I traveled to Mount Rainier and found myself wondering what a mountain and a church have in common. I must have carried it with me over the years that I made that my main writing exercise.

Paul knew that there was a value in architecture, in arts, in beautiful things. Why do those things matter? Because they do. The only way to make a convincing argument for architecture is with poetry, and people who don’t care for art are immune to poetic language as well. You either understand it in your soul or you don’t.”

I heard someone today say that he was not feeling emotional about the fire at Notre Dame. He said that he was sure the French would rebuild. I believe that is true. But there is a time to every purpose under heaven. There is a time to rebuild and rise from the ashes and there is a time to mourn what is lost. At this moment it is a time to mourn.

 

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 

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?