Oscar’s Ghost

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?

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The Many Shades Between Vilification and Admiration

Today’s Times (London) features an article by director Dominic Dromgoole on his production of The Importance of Being Earnest being staged at the Vaudeville Theater.

Wilde has also shown us something beyond the chill of certainties. As he knew, people come to the theatre to escape certainty; it is the place for adventure and questioning and imagination. It has been a pleasure to watch our audiences relishing Wilde’s ability to balance several different points of view in one paradoxical sentence. Not for him the hammer-headed tweet, with its partial point of view. Theatre, as he knew, is in a constant state of searching for more complex moral judgments; it uses interrogation and empathy to reveal the multifaceted nature of human choice and human transaction. In an age when left and right search for new ways to express monochrome absolutes, one can feel the audience relishing a few hours’ holiday in a world of maturity and nuance.

Wilde knew that charity is more likely to be found among sinners than among the pious; and that kindness is more likely to be found in the free of mind than in the closed. He had lived with wolves and had lived out his own wolfishness. Each of his puritans discovers that those they thought of as all bad have reserves of the greatest kindness, and those they idolised as perfect are capable of meanness and clumsiness.

That sense of complexity and nuance is something that has always drawn me to Wilde. He uses paradox to show that opposites are not opposites, he resists polarization and easy judgment.

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to Matthew Sturgis’ review of Oscar’s Ghost in the latest edition of The Wildean. I mentioned the review earlier, but now that the issue has been out for a while, I think it is safe to quote it a bit more.

The joint review of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years begins: “These two books are useful– and enjoyable–additions to the Wildean canon…They are both full of good things, novel insights and interesting asides…”

So you’ve got to like that.

“The intricacies and repetitions of the various court cases initiated by Ross, Douglas, Crosland and others can be fascinating, tedious, dispiriting and incomprehensible– almost all at the same time… There is much impressive research here and [Lee] lays it out with a light, sometimes humorous touch…Lee brings a certain freshness to her project.”

It is a detailed review of both books, thorough and knowledgeable, as one would expect of The Wildean. In all it is a thoughtful and balanced review.

NonameThere is one word of it, however, that has been playing on my mind. The word is “admiration.”

“Both Lee and Frankel are broadly sympathetic to Bosie, emphasising his eduring love and loyalty to Wilde at the time of his incarceration–and afterwards. It is a useful corrective,” Sturgis writes before discussing some of the questions of whether or not Wilde and Douglas only split because they were forced to by circumstances, or whether their romance had run its course.

My view is that they intended to have a future together but found it too difficult to live together given all of the external pressure. I also suspect they had a row over this just before they stopped living together in Naples, with Douglas wanting to keep fighting the world and Wilde not wanting to.

I also suspect, incidentally, that part of Douglas’s anger when Wilde insisted that he should set aside some of his inheritance to support Wilde post-Naples (see my previous post on the film The Happy Prince) derived from the fact that it was Wilde, not Douglas, who had given up on their living together.  Had they still been living together, they would have pooled their resources, and Douglas’s inheritance would have benefited them both. If Wilde did break up with him, then came back insisting that he should be set up financially for life, Douglas’s anger becomes quite a bit more comprehensible.

But given that their relationship was never exclusive, and that they continued to spend time together and to fall back into old habits, I’m not sure it is actually all that clear whether they broke up or not.  Beyond that, whether the relationship formally ended is a separate question from whether their feelings for each other ended. In essence, as with most things Wilde related, I don’t think it is a simple yes or no question.

And now we come to the point in the review where the word “admiration” rears its head: “An authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas, moreover, has to be sustained in the face of much terrible behaviour…”

This comes in a paragraph of the review that does a good job describing the complexities of the battle between Ross and Douglas over Wilde’s legacy.  “Ross for– for all the personal and professional admiration that he enjoyed– could be a touchy and difficult character… not for nothing did Max Beerbohm dub him the ‘botherationist.’ But Douglas was far touchier and far more difficult.”

It is not entirely clear that “authorial admiration for Lord Alfred Douglas” is supposed to refer to my book, but it seems as though it is. So knowing my feelings better than anyone else, I will say for the record that “admiration” is not what I feel about Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a wide swath between “broadly sympathetic” and “admiration.”

Douglas has always been a polarizing character– it is part of his fascination. The polarization tends to create a “with him or against him” mindset where anything short of condemnation can be seen as approval or even admiration.

Here is my point of view on Douglas. I think that he has been too much blamed for some things and not enough blamed for others. I do not believe he deserves to be condemned as much as he has been for wanting to be loved by Oscar Wilde while having a difficult personality. (Wilde was often drawn to people with challenging personalities, judging by many of the other friends in his circle, including Ross.)

On the other hand, the way Douglas treated his good friend Freddie Manners-Sutton was appalling. (After Sutton refused to invest in Douglas’s literary journal The Academy, he dragged him into court to expose his personal secrets, bad behavior that it seems he had, himself, encouraged.) He had no excuse for it, and few have commented much on that aspect of it, focusing instead on what the libel trial revealed about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde. As I wrote in the book, I suspect that some of Douglas’s emotional and behavioral extremes were influenced by what we would today term mental illness, (Manners-Sutton’s correspondence with Olive Douglas suggests that even as he was being abused by Douglas, his former friend viewed him as not being entirely in control of himself and maintained a certain pained sympathy) but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

Facebook status: “it’s complicated.”

The more I dug into the characters of Douglas and Ross, the more I discovered contradictions and episodes that didn’t fit well with the polar views of these characters: Douglas as chaos, Ross as stability. Ross, like Douglas, was litigious. He seems to have been drawn to difficult people and conflict. Ross was probably as promiscuous as Douglas. Douglas, not only Ross, tried to find Wilde work after he got out of prison. Some of Ross’s efforts to help Wilde were as ill-conceived as some of Douglas’s, and so on.

But, indeed, Douglas was more extreme in his feud with Ross. He was more extreme in everything. He was a man who was hardwired with poor emotional control (call it bipolar disorder or something else) who was also pushed by extreme circumstances and the combination was combustible.

My view of Douglas is best summed up in the epilogue of Oscar’s Ghost: “Douglas was a class snob, capable of great selfishness, petulant self-pity and outbursts of irrational rage, but… [he] was a more complex, multifaceted individual than he is often given credit for.”

I do find Douglas (and Ross) fascinating, but I did not intend for this to read as admiration.

In any case, I am grateful for the thorough and thoughtful review in The Wildean, and if you have any interest in Wilde, I recommend subscribing.

 

 

 

A Crime to be Different

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

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

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

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

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

The Wildean and Credit Where It’s Due

img_0203 The new edition of The Wildean is coming out this week. I’m pleased to have an article in it. (It’s on the relationship between some of the solicitors involved in the Wilde case and the blackmailers.)

There will also be a joint review of my Oscar’s Ghost along with Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years by Matthew Sturgis. I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I won’t say much about my article or the review right now.

There was one small thing in the review that I did want to address because I believe in giving credit where credit is due.

In talking about my research Sturgis mentioned that one of the sidelights that I “opened up” was “the extraordinary transformation of Ross’s one-time lover and ‘secretary,’ Freddie Smith, into a novelist of independent means…..”

I feel compelled to say that I cannot take credit for unearthing the story of this fascinating transformation. It was Maria Roberts who spent the hours at the British Library in the challenging task of trying to document the life of a closeted gay man named Smith (if you will excuse the anachronistic phrase). She was the one who discovered Smith’s second career as a novelist. She even tracked down all of his books and wrote summaries of them. I just bought a copy of her Let Them Say and passed along what I learned from it.

Because it is an independently published book on a niche topic it is not well known or widely reviewed, but Roberts is an excellent researcher and if you are fascinated by the Wilde circle, especially how Ross and his friends carried on Wilde’s legacy after his death, you will find a great deal of interesting detail in two of Roberts books. I gained a great deal of insight into the Robert Ross circle through Roberts book on Smith and her biography of Christopher Millard, Yours Loyally.

I was also fortunate enough to have the benefit of Roberts insights through a regular correspondence. Maria Roberts is also the first person listed in the acknowledgments in Oscar’s Ghost because she was incredibly generous with her time and knowledge and her research help allowed me to see many more primary sources than I would have been able to otherwise. It was one of my greatest fortunes in researching Oscar’s Ghost that I met Roberts when I did. I am glad to have another opportunity to publicly say “thank you.”

If you’re not already a subscriber, I recommend The Wildean to anyone who can’t get enough information on Oscar Wilde. I hope you will also check out Maria Roberts’ books.

Des Moines July 28: The Battle Over Oscar Wilde’s Legacy Discussion and Book Signing

If you live in the Des Moines, IA area, I hope that you will stop by and say hello on July 28. I will be discussing Oscar’s Ghost and signing copies beginning at 3 PM at Beaverdale Books, a great independent book store with a commitment to supporting authors.

Years after Oscar Wilde’s death, two of his closest friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and his literary executor Robert Ross ‒ both former lovers ‒ engaged in a bitter battle over Wilde’s legacy and who was to blame for his downfall and early death. The centerpiece of the conflict was Ross’s handling of Wilde’s prison manuscript, De Profundis. The furious struggle led to stalking, witness tampering, prison, and a series of dramatic lawsuits. The feud had long-lasting repercussions, not only for the two men, but also for how we remember Oscar Wilde today.

See you there?

Oscar Christ?

Around the time I was writing the novel Angel, I started a project of reading the New Testament with the books in the order that scholars believe they were written. (This was before the late Marcus Borg released his Evolution of the Word, which does this very thing for you.)

Reading chronologically you start to see how the idea of Jesus expanded over time as he moved from a more human figure in Mark to a thoroughly mystical Christ in John. One of the things that made an impression on me was how Jesus’s response to his arrest and execution evolved.  What was, in Mark, deeply traumatic was transformed over time so that in John, Jesus was aware of his destiny, nearly choreographing his own destruction, walking with a sense of the larger meaning this event would one day have for the world.

I was reminded of this while watching this interview with Rupert Everett about his new film The Happy Prince. Everett describes Wilde as stage managing his own ruin.

The tendency to cast Oscar Wilde as the gay Christ is something I have talked about occasionally here, particularly in the context of the Oscar Wilde shrine that was created by two artists in New York a while back. Stephen Fry is another actor who has portrayed Wilde and spoken of him in the same terms.

I have some reservations about this comparison. It depends a great deal on what you take a “Christ figure” to be.

The most obvious parallel is that Wilde was punished by society, he died as a reviled figure but was resurrected by his apostles, in particular by Robbie Ross and friends of his like Christopher Millard who preserved Wilde’s work and tried to bring it to new audiences.

This common refrain of Wilde as Christ figure certainly speaks to a need for a symbol to make the sufferings that gay men have enured meaningful, to spiritualize the pain and make it transcendent. A Christ figure is not just resurrected, the story of his rebirth is cleansing for those who identify with him.

This is easier to do, I think, with a symbolic Wilde than with Wilde as a man. But perhaps this was also true of Jesus of Nazareth. He has come down to us as both fully human and fully divine, yet not quite so human that he could make mistakes. (Whereas for Everett being “an idiot” sometimes is part of the humanity of his gay Christ figure.)

When I read the first chronological gospel, Mark, I was surprised by one episode I found there. (Also by the naked guy who went streaking through Mark 14:51-52.)

I am talking about the story of the Syrophonecian woman in Mark 7:24-29 (the story is repeated in Matthew 15:21-28).

A Gentile woman comes to Jesus. I am not informed enough to understand all of the ancient cultural politics between Syrophonecians and Jews. In any case, the woman begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her daughter. Maybe he is tired and his nerves are frayed after the constant barrage of his own people asking him to heal them, now he is supposed to heal Syrophonecians too? He refuses and compares her to a dog. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

She answers, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Jesus dismisses the woman because of her social status. He doesn’t see her suffering as his problem. He speaks to her in a rude manner. What should a reader make of that?

The way Mark depicts Jesus at this point is like a celebrity being hounded by paparazzi. Jesus was getting tired, he wanted to be off the clock, and he snapped at this woman in an inappropriate way and she called him on it. He changed his mind and healed the woman’s daughter.

So perhaps Jesus was once seen as someone human enough to make mistakes too. But today Christ is not a man who makes mistakes, but a man who was too good for the world and was thus destroyed by it.

For someone like Oscar Wilde to be Christlike in this sense means he is a symbol of the best of humanity being destroyed by the worst of society. To make that case, it helps to make good and evil a bit neater and clearer.  Oscar Wilde has often been polished to enhance the tragedy of his downfall, a process that I wrote about in detail in Oscar’s Ghost.

An interesting question, one which came up in the comments on my previous article on The Happy Prince, is whether Lord Alfred Douglas became a scapegoat for some of Wilde’s own sins. Both men were snobbish, but Wilde’s snobbishness is often read as charming. Both were promiscuous, but Douglas has been depicted as the driving force in their amorous adventures. Both were careless with money, but Douglas has often been blamed for making Wilde overspend.

Because of his erratic behavior, his attacks on people like Robert Ross, his litigation, Douglas made himself an easy target for those who would try to find a vessel for some of Wilde’s sins.

I believe that today we might be inclined to forgive some of Douglas’s emotional extremes were it not for his cardinal sin, his anti-Semitism in his bitter middle years. The views that are so rightfully distasteful to us today were unfortunately common in his time. (And in fact, we seem to be in a similar era today with anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment becoming increasingly accepted.)

One of the aspects of the story that I explored briefly, and wished I was able to explore in more depth was the time Wilde spent in the company of Ferdinand Waslin Esterhazy during his exile in Paris. At the time the Dreyfus trials had polarized French culture.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the general staff of the French army had been a convenient patsy when it became clear that military secrets had been passed to the German military attaché in Paris. Dreyfus was found guilty on questionable evidence and, before a howling mob shouting anti-Semitic epithets, exiled to the Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. He was kept in solitary confinement, manacled to his bed at night. By the time Zola took up his cause, he was losing his teeth and hair and was unable to speak.

In February 1898, Wilde and Douglas’s friend, the journalist Rowland Strong, was in Paris covering the trial of the author Emile Zola who had been accused of defaming the high command of the French army with an open letter that alleged the Dreyfus affair was a gross miscarriage of justice.

In the wake of Zola’s article, the French public became divided along familiar fault lines as to who was the real traitor. On the right were those who believed the verdict had been just. This group included nationalists, the military and the Catholic church. On the left were the Dreyfusards, mostly Protestant, Socialists, Freemasons and intellectuals. In fact, the word ‘intellectual’ was coined by Georges Clemenceau, the politician who published Zola’s letter, to describe the Dreyfus supporters.

One might expect Wilde, who had so recently suffered public prejudice and a painful jail term, would be sympathetic to Dreyfus. Instead he spent a number of evenings in the company of the real culprit, Esterhazy.

There were a number of reasons he might have made this choice. One may have been his personal feelings about Zola. Zola, whose works were also frequent targets of censorship, had fathered two children with his live-in seamstress under the nose of his wife, but had refused to sign a petition calling for clemency in Wilde’s conviction.

Most of the people in Wilde’s circle at the time were anti-Dreyfusards including Douglas, Strong, and journalists Frank Harris and Robert Sherard. Was Wilde the singular standout among his circle? As I wrote in Oscar’s Ghost:

What Wilde actually thought of the Dreyfus affair is hard to discern. Douglas was an anti-Dreyfusard, although he in September 1898, admitted in a letter to Wilde that things looked rather bad for his side. It is not clear from the letter whether he believed Wilde agreed with him or not. At the very least, he did not think Wilde would be shocked by his opinion. Sherard was not much better at defending his friend against the charge of anti-Semitism than he was against homosexuality. He explained that Wilde’s sympathies were, of course, with Dreyfus. He liked Jews. “’The Jews,’ he used to say, ‘are the only people who lend money.’”

Could Oscar Wilde have been, at the same time, the victim of prejudice and on the side of those who perpetrated it against others?

I was quite interested to read a review in the Guardian of Michèle Mendelssohn’s new book on Oscar Wilde, which I am looking forward to reading. According to the Guardian’s review, Mendelssohn presents Wilde during his famous American lecture tour as someone who was sensitive to being marginalized both as an Irishman and as a homosexual whose feminine mannerisms made his difference apparent. (Max Beerbohm described Wilde as “Effeminate but vitality of twenty men.”) She describes some of the public pillorying he endured in post-Civil War America.

One episode that bookends quite nicely with his socializing with Esterhazy was his visit to meet the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He publicly identified with white Southern farmers, the former slave owners, and told stories that connected him to the most manly of men.

The story, for instance, about the miners he met in Leadville, Colorado – one he loved to tell audiences at his Personal Impressions of America lectures on his return home – was almost entirely made up to make himself seem more masculine.

Wilde would be far from the first or last marginalized person to seek protection by identifying with the oppressors. This tendency could help explain his snobbishness, his attraction to a young man with a title, and his fateful decision to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel.  He expected to be able to win over the legal authorities as he had done with so many other establishment figures. It is understandable, but it certainly complicates him as a pioneer of gay rights or a gay Christ. As the Guardian’s article concludes:

Wilde returned from the US in 1883. By 1892, he was London’s leading theatrical phenomenon, the writer of Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance. What impact did his American adventures have on his comedy? Mendelssohn links these early hits to the influence of the Christy Minstrels show, an American blackface group that went in for much witty repartee and which always placed a dandy centre stage. Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is, she believes, a near relative of the blackface dandies who parodied Wilde while he was on tour (he must have known about them; these troupes were attracting audiences far greater than his own). Wilde’s most successful characters often wear masks; he had created, Mendelssohn writes, “his own kind of white face theatre”, one that used the sweetening effect of comedy to expose hierarchy and social prejudice.

Why are these influences largely forgotten today? In his own time, after all, the critics were certainly aware of them. Mendelssohn’s research is prodigious; she has tapped sources previously unavailable to other scholars. But the thought also occurs that, perhaps, there is something willed at play here, too. In the 21st century, the good and the bad, the tolerant and bigoted, the free and the closed, are simply not allowed to snuggle up together. Our understanding of what it means to be human – by which I mean to be flawed – grows ever more limited. As we all surely know, Wilde’s extended afterlife has been every bit as extraordinary as his corporeal one. He has long since become a saint, gay history’s Christ figure. It may be that we can only see him as a victim of the attitudes of his age, when, at key moments, he was also in cahoots with them, an accomplice after all.

Together these episodes from two ends of his life show how successful Wilde was in crafting his own biography.  The 1997 film Wilde opens with the playwright’s visit to Leadville. Lord Alfred Douglas is depicted in the film (as he was in Richard Ellman’s biography on which it was based) as the alluring but sinister influence he was in Wilde’s De Profundis. The film ends before the story has a chance to get too messy.

With the help of Robert Ross, the story of Oscar Wilde’s operatic downfall and resurrection has endured and continues to intrigue. The biography of Oscar Wilde may be Wilde’s greatest work.

“Compelling Reading”

The New Criterion has published a joint review by Carl Rollyson of Oscar’s Ghost and Nicholas Frankel’s Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years.

“Frankel’s Wilde is resilient and defiant—and also wily,” Rollyson writes of Frankel’s biography, which recasts the playwright’s final years in a less tragic light than most Wilde biographies.

I agree with Frankel’s view that prison did not end Wilde’s literary career, that he came out of prison optimistic about his future, that he only separated from Lord Alfred Douglas due to insurmountable pressure, and that Douglas remained a factor in Wilde’s life until his death.

This leads nicely into the battle that followed, and is why so many reviewers have featured our books together.

On Oscar’s Ghost, Rollyson writes: “Laura Lee’s Oscar’s Ghost provides a variation on biography as retrospective: biography is not just a matter of looking back at a life, but instead a question of how the sources of that life are assembled for posterity…The back and forth of the lawsuits, mainly a result of Douglas’s relentless persecution of Ross, makes for compelling reading in Lee’s book.”