Literature

Douglas v Ransome and Others

I wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who attended my Zoom talk on “Oscar’s Ghost” yesterday. It was fun, and I do plan to make the recording available when I’ve had  chance to edit out some of the zoom awkwardness at the beginning.

In the meantime, I thought I would share this video highlighting an artifact from the trial at the heart of the story, the libel case between Lord Alfred Douglas and Arthur Ransome, which was more of a proxy battle between Douglas and Robert Ross.

This is the document from which the prosecution read in court. You will notice that on the first page of the typescript the salutation “Dear Bosie” is hand written. I believe that a typescript copy, sent to Douglas in discovery before the case, did not have this handwritten salutation.

Early on in the case, Douglas tried to deny that De Profundis was addressed to him. He only admitted it was when he saw the handwritten copy for the first time on the witness stand. He would only have done this if the document he had seen lacked the salutation. The lawyer for the Times Book Club even argued in his closing, based presumably on a similar copy of the typescript he had been given to prepare his case, that “Wilde in the De Profundis letter had not mentioned the plaintiff’s name.”

This video reflects the widely held belief that the reading of De Profundis caused Lord Alfred Douglas to lose his case. In fact, after taking up two days of the court’s time with it, the judge instructed the jury that it should not give it much weight. As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

Ransome Trial PhotoThe reading of De Profundis, however, as dramatic as it was, did not cause him to lose his case. Justice Charles Darling, in his summation urged the jury not to take the prison letter at face value. He called it a “most remarkable and interesting document.” He said it should be taken as a study of what a bad man of genius had gone through in prison and its effect upon him. “It would be a great mistake to take all that he said as Gospel truth. The document was an excuse and an apology.” If De Profundis had been the only evidence, Douglas would probably have won the case. As we shall soon see, what swayed the judge, and caused him to direct the jury as he did, were damning personal letters provided by Robert Ross that proved beyond a doubt Douglas was guilty of the same crimes as Wilde. The defence team had strategically held back the letters, saving them as to use as rebuttal evidence in cross-examination. This meant that they did not have to include them in the initial plea of justification. In a statement for a later legal case, Ross would claim that he had produced the letters “under subpoena.” This is unlikely because if he had not made the decision to show them to the Ransome legal team, they would have had no way of knowing of their existence in the first place.

As the judge said in his summation, Douglas had been badly advised when he brought the case, but he had not known that these letters still existed until he was confronted with them in court. If he had known what was about to be unleashed on him, even the litigious Bosie might have thought twice about bringing the action.

The prosecution, financed and instructed by Ross, had used a carefully curated selection of letters to tell a story that Oscar Wilde came out of jail a reformed man only to be dragged back into a shameful life by Lord Alfred Douglas, who left him as soon as the money ran out.

I won’t go into the specifics of the letters here, and how well they represented the truth, but if you have an interest in that, it’s in the book.

Christopher Millard (Wilde bibliographer and editor of Three Times Tried) called Darling’s summation “a brilliant speech for the defence.”

Darling defended Ross’s decision to cut out the unpublished parts of De Profundis while publishing the rest.

The fact that the trustees of the British Museum agreed to take it proved that it was a valuable document. After bringing the case, Douglas could not now complain that the defence had produced De Profundis to show what Wilde’s view was of their relations. Nor, he said, could Douglas complain that his old letters had been produced. “He apparently did not know that those letters had been kept.”

It was on those letters that Darling put the greatest importance. He read one that Douglas had written to Wilde in 1899. The press declined to print it, but Darling described it as containing a “conversation which a decent pagan of the time of Pericles would not have referred to.”

Darling spoke of the attempts that had been made after Wilde’s release from prison “to enable him to redeem his past, and perhaps to still again become a great literary man if only he would give up his evil life. The plaintiff had referred to Oscar Wilde as a ‘devil incarnate.’ If it was true that Wilde was trying to lead a better life, what term might he not well apply to the man who had written that letter?”

He said that it had been proved that Lord Alfred Douglas was the subject of the text in Ransome’s book, and that De Profundis proved that Wilde did hold Douglas responsible for his downfall, and that further letters showed that he did believe Douglas behaved badly after he left prison and that Wilde feared his influence. His final thought before putting the case in the hands of the jury was devoted to De Profundis. “Oscar Wilde was writing this, and it is plain that he was writing it for his own glorification, whether it is true or not. That is quite plain.”

…It took the jury only 45 minutes to find that the words in Ransome’s book were libellous, but also true. They found that the Times Book Club was not negligent in making the book available. From then on there was no more talk of Wilde being driven to excess by “admirers” in the plural. Douglas was now the only suspect in Wilde’s ruin. The only question his supporters and detractors would fight over was just how culpable he was.

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…

 

A Lean Knife Between the Ribs of Time

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices. Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it…

bosieThis article, from Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, on Notre Dame de Paris as “a great stone book” had me thinking again about art as a desire to speak across time.

It reminded me of Lord Alfred Douglas’s City of the Soul, written while Douglas was living with Oscar Wilde in Naples.

Each new hour’s passage is the acolyte

Of inarticulate song and syllable,

And every passing moment is a bell,

To mourn the death of undiscerned delight.

Where is the sun that made the noon-day bright,

And where the midnight moon? O let us tell,

In long carved line and painted parable,

How the white road curves down into the night.

Only to build one crystal barrier

Against this sea which beats upon our days ;

To ransom one lost moment with a rhyme

Or if fate cries and grudging gods demur,

To clutch Life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase

Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time.

Naples, 1897.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Annotated Prison Writings and an Oscar Wilde What If?

9780674984387-lg.jpg Recently I started reading The Annotated Prison Writing of Oscar Wilde edited by Nicholas Frankel. It reminded me of what led me on my Oscar’s Ghost journey to begin with: my fascination with Wilde’s prison opus De Profundis.

It began when I read Robert Ross’s edited 1905 version. I wanted more, and turned to the version published in the Complete Letters, and that left me with more questions, which led me to biographies of Wilde, Ross and Douglas. But at the heart of it was De Profundis. I can’t tell you why, but my fascination with that document never seems to wane. There are the soaring passages about Wilde’s philosophical journey in prison that first drew me in. Then there is the question of the conditions under which he wrote it. There is the mystery of what Wilde wanted to do with the work, and the impact it had on two of his friends, the battle over its ownership and how it would frame the biography of Oscar Wilde for future generations. Every time a new version with notes and annotations comes out, I am gripped again. This is a wonderful edition, well laid out, easy to follow, full of interesting insights and to top it all off, unlike a number of the scholarly editions out there, it is affordable.

If you read Oscar’s Ghost (or even if you didn’t) and you wanted to know more about the prison manuscript that was at the heart of it all, I highly recommend this book.

An idea came to me while I was reading one of the De Profundis annotations.  One of the questions that comes up often when reading about Oscar Wilde is “What if?” What if Wilde had not sued the Marquess of Queensberry? One of the “What ifs” that tormented Lord Alfred Douglas was what if he had been able to testify in court.

One of the what ifs that struck me early on involved an event on February 14, 1895, the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. Queensberry had come to the theater, armed with a “bouquet of vegetables” that he intended to throw at Wilde during his curtain speech. Word of his plan leaked, and he was prevented from entering. Wilde wanted to sue Queensberry over the incident and use that to stop his harassment. Had he done this, the question of his sexuality might not have been an issue and things might have gone entirely differently. Unfortunately, the theater’s management didn’t want to be involved in a scandal and they refused to allow staff to act as witnesses. What if they had? It seems like such a lost opportunity.

Today one word in one of Nicholas Frankel’s notes leapt out from the page. The word was “narrowly.”

“As Wilde relates, Queensberry was only narrowly prevented from entering the St. James Theatre…” Only narrowly prevented.

It struck me that it would have been better if he had not been prevented from entering the theater that night. Until the Wilde trials, with the exception of the rules of boxing, Queensberry was best known for one thing. He was the eccentric peer who had interrupted a performance of Tennyson’s “Promise of May” to rant against the dialogue of a fictional freethinker. He was pilloried in the press,

“Like…the bray of a donkey…the Marquis has burst upon the public with a suddenness and vehemence that are perfectly appalling,” wrote the Aberdeen Weekly Journal. “Nobody was thinking of him, dreaming of him, apprehensive of him– or wanting him.”

When Wilde’s libel case was announced, until the evidence about prostitutes came up, many journalists were predicting the case would end with Queensberry locked up in the madhouse.

Imagine, then, that a second outburst at a theater had not been “narrowly” prevented. Imagine that this character who was widely viewed as unstable, disruptive–mad even–had done it again? Imagine if Wilde, at the height of his fame, in front of a first night audience, was pelted with vegetables by this man? The sympathy would have been all with Wilde. It would matter little what he was shouting about. This was the man who publicly threatened to horse-whip Lord Rosebery. There would have been ample witnesses to testify that his lordship had disturbed the peace. Just think, that bouquet of vegetables might have changed the course of history.

Some creative soul should really write the Oscar Wilde Choose Your Own Adventure Book. I’d buy a copy.

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?

 

 

 

 

Does Art Belong to Its Audience or Its Creator?

…For many other artists, however, the arts network proves an unmitigated disaster. Sometimes it’s just that the freewheeling thought patterns that lead to artmaking don’t lead as gracefully to tidy record keeping. More often, though, the same artists who diligently follow a self-imposed discipline (like writing in iambic pentameter, or composing for solo piano) prove singularly ill-equipped to handle constraints imposed by others… Ideally (at least from the artist’s viewpoint), the arts network is there to handle all those details not central to the artmaking process… If all this evidence of the reach of today’s arts network still fails to impress you, consider the sobering corollary: once you’re dead, all your art is handled by this network.

David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking

As the artist works away, creating, revising, failing and starting again, she never knows if her work will live beyond her, if it will be cherished or forgotten; if it will be deemed classic or garbage. Much of this has little to do with the artist or the quality of her work at all. To become “a classic” a work has to have a champion who is determined to share it after the artist is gone. It has to have teachers who present it to students. It has to have archivists who deem it worthy of preservation. These are the artist-makers. Their passionate enthusiasm transforms a struggling artist, who may have died penniless, into a vital part of our culture. Sometimes these executors carry on in accordance with the artists’ wishes. Sometimes they do so in spite of the artist.

The Atlantic today featured a review of Benjamin Balint’s forthcoming Kafka’s Last Trial, a book about the posthumous legal battle over Kafka’s manuscripts. In his review Adam Kirsch wrote:

At the time of his death, in 1924, at the age of 40, Kafka hardly seemed like a candidate for world fame. He had a minor reputation in German literary circles, but he had never been a professional writer…

Famously, he had tried to keep it that way. Before he died, Kafka had written a letter to Brod, who found it when he went to clear out Kafka’s desk. In this “last will,” Kafka instructed Brod to burn all his manuscripts, including his letters and diaries. But Brod, who admired Kafka to the point of idolatry, refused to carry out his friend’s wishes. Instead, he devoted the rest of his life to editing, publishing, and promoting Kafka’s work—even writing a novel about him, in which Kafka was thinly disguised as a character named Richard Garta. In this way, Brod ensured not only Kafka’s immortality, but his own. Though Brod himself was a successful and prolific writer, today he is remembered almost exclusively for his role in Kafka’s story.

The question of whether Brod acted ethically in disregarding Kafka’s dying wishes is one of the great debates of literary history, and it lies at the core of Balint’s book. As he notes, “Brod was neither the first nor the last to confront such a dilemma.” Virgil wanted the Aeneid to be burned after his death, a wish that was also denied. Preserving an author’s work against his or her will implies that art belongs more to its audience than to its creator. And in strictly utilitarian terms, Brod undoubtedly made the right choice. Publishing Kafka’s work has brought pleasure and enlightenment to countless readers (and employment to hundreds of Kafka experts); destroying it would have benefited only a dead man.

Does art belong more to its audience than its creator?

Put another way: Is the life of the work of art more valuable than the human considerations of the artist and his relations?

Robert Baldwin Ross, who became Oscar Wilde’s literary executor a number of years after his death, was one who placed a high value on the life of works of art. In response to an editorial that said in a burning museum anyone would save a child over an old master, Ross wrote that he hoped he’d have the courage to save the art.

One of the great debates in Wilde circles is how closely Ross’s actions on behalf of Wilde’s estate followed Wilde’s wishes. Nowhere is this more relevant than in his handling of the manuscript of Wilde’s prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, which Ross named De Profundis. Ross was determined that the work was important, and he went to great lengths to preserve it. His efforts proved painful and detrimental to Douglas, and ultimately to himself as Douglas battled against them.

We, the modern-day readers and researchers who benefit from the continued existence of De Profundis, are grateful for Ross’s choice and therefore there is a strong bias in favor of the idea that Ross did act in accordance with Wilde’s wishes. We would like the ghost of Wilde to be pleased at his literary resurrection and our interest in his life.

There is reason to doubt that Ross did follow Wilde’s instructions when it comes to the manuscript. He did not follow the only written instructions that were preserved– they said to send the handwritten original to Lord Alfred Douglas, which did not happen. He claimed to have received different verbal instructions. Of course, the only evidence for this is Ross’s own statement.

Ross did not always follow Wilde’s instructions when he disagreed with them while he was alive.  After Wilde was released from prison, they had a minor falling out over how The Ballad of Reading Gaol should be published. Ross felt, for artistic reasons, that it should only be put out as a book. Wilde’s concerns at that point were more down to earth and human. He’d lost everything when he went to jail and he wanted the biggest, fastest paycheck. That meant serial publication.

Unable to persuade Wilde to think long-term, he went behind Wilde’s back and tried to enlist Leonard Smithers in preventing serial publication. “I hope you will refuse to publish [the ballad] at all if the market is going to be spoiled by having it published in an English newspaper.” Ross wrote. When Wilde learned of this he was understandably annoyed with Ross.

One thing that I found interesting in Kirsch’s article on Kafka was the speculation that Kafka chose his literary executor precisely because they disagreed.

And in choosing Brod as his executor, he picked the one person who was certain not to carry out his instructions. It was as if Kafka wanted to transmit his writing to posterity, but didn’t want the responsibility for doing so… Brod, for his part, had no doubts about the importance of his friend’s writing.

Was a similar dynamic at work in Wilde’s reliance on Ross’s contrary advice and his decision to name him as his literary executor? Did he chose someone who he instinctively knew would value the art over even his own point of view about it?

Or would Ross’s handling of De Profundis have, in the words of their mutual friend Reggie Turner, “pained its author.”

Even Wilde’s desire to have Ross as his executor is contentious– a fact that has largely been forgotten. Ross’s position as executor was only won after lengthy litigation. His success in court was based on a single line in one of Wilde’s prison letters, the same one in which he instructs Ross to send De Profundis to Douglas.  The exact line is “If you’re going to be my executor you should have [De Profundis].” Ross used this letter in court to prove that he had the authority to be Wilde’s executor and also that De Profundis was his personal property. My personal theory is that Ross may have destroyed letters that contained more of Wilde’s instructions regarding the manuscript, but he had to retain the letter that called him Wilde’s executor. It was easier for him to make the claim that Wilde had given him verbal instructions that contradicted his first written ones than to support the claim that he had any right to act on Wilde’s behalf without it.

If he did edit the record to make his actions on the estate’s behalf clearer should we care? What if he took actions that went counter to Wilde’s own wishes? Should we care about that or is Wilde’s own view ultimately less important than ours as the audience?

I believe three things: First, I believe (though I cannot prove) that Wilde’s desires for De Profundis changed after he reunited with Douglas after his release from jail. Second, I believe (and also cannot prove) that Ross disregarded at least some of Wilde’s instructions for what he thought was the greater good.  Finally, I believe that the preservation of De Profundis was, in fact, a greater good.

What do you think?