I’ve had a lot of requests to share this talk that I did a couple of weeks ago.
I apologize that it was recorded in grid mode, so I’m not as central on the screen as I probably should be. I have uploaded it to Youtube for easier posting, but it is an unlisted link, which means it will not turn up in the search, but people who have the link can share it.
After I did the talk, I listened through and wrote down some things I wanted to expand upon before sharing it, but I then lost the notebook in which I wrote it. Not having the gumption to watch it all again, (I don’t love watching myself) I’ll have to leave it as it is.
There are a couple of things that I do remember I had wanted to share.
One has to do with the part involving T.W.H. Crosland and Maurice Schwabe, which comes in the second half somewhere. I mention Crosland visiting Maurice Schwabe’s flat. The actual details of those associations are actually a bit more complicated. Crosland didnt spend time at Schwabe’s flat, but he and the friend Bosie was hanging out with at Schwabe’s flat were spending time together and went on a vacation together where a lot of debauchery allegedly happened and Crosland was part of that trip. All of this is to be detailed one day in my forthcoming book on Maurice Schwabe. (Really, I keep promising, but it is on the way.)
In the second part, around the 27 minute mark, as I recall, I realized that I was a bit fuzzy on the details of the seemingly endless series of trials between our combatants. It is hard to keep all the details in one’s mind. When Oscar’s Ghost was still being put together, I wrote a primer on the trials with the idea that it would be an appendix. In the end, it wasn’t included. I don’t know if I have ever posted it here, but I thought it might clarify some of my wobbling in the middle.
The Wilde Trials
Oscar Wilde was famously ‘three times tried’. He filed the first action for criminal libel against Lord Alfred Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. This backfired and led to two criminal prosecutions.
1. Regina vs. John Douglas (Marquess of Queensberry). March-April 1895.
In the preliminary hearing in the magistrates’ court, before R. M. Newton, Mr C. O. Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Sir George Lewis for Queensberry. In a further preliminary Lewis was replaced, because of a conflict of interest, with Edward Carson and Mr. Charles Frederick Gill. The libel trial was heard by Justice Richard Henn Collins with Sir Edward Clarke, Charles W. Mathews and Travers Humphreys acting for the prosecution (Wilde) and Edward Carson, C.F. Gill and A. E. Gill acting for the defendant (Queensberry). Wilde withdrew his case against Queensberry before all the evidence had been heard, supposeddly on a gentlemen’s agreement that if he did there would be no criminal prosecution.
2. Regina v. Oscar Wilde. April 1895.
Wilde was arrested for a violation of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 based on evidence Queensberry had collected for the libel case. Wilde was tried with a co-defendant, Alfred Taylor. They were charged with twenty-five counts of gross indecency, procuring and conspiracy to procure. Edward Clarke represented Wilde pro bono. Taylor was represented by Arthur Newton. (Lord Alfred Douglas contributed towards the costs of Taylor’s defense.) In the preliminary hearings C.F. Gill prosecuted. Travers Humphreys appeared for Wilde and Newton for Taylor. The Old Bailey trial opened on 22 April 1895 before Justice Arthur Charles. C.F. Gill and Horace Avory prosecuted. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys defended. The jury was not able to reach a verdict and the case was postponed until the next session. The Morning published what purported to be the actual results of jury vote. If their account is accurate, the jury was divided 10-2 on most questions, with the majority in favor of a guilty verdict.
3. Regina v. Oscar Wilde and Regina v. Alfred Taylor
Upon a joint application by counsel to the defendants Wilde and Taylor were tried separately before Justice Alfred Wills. The solicitor general Sir Frank Lockwood (uncle of Douglas and Wilde’s friend Maurice Salis-Schwabe) prosecuted with C.F. Gill and Horace Avory. Edward Clarke, Charles Mathews and Travers Humphreys again appeared for Wilde and J.P. Grain for Taylor. Taylor was tried first and was found guilty of gross indecency but acquitted of procuring as no evidence had been presented that Taylor took money for the introductions he made. Wilde’s trial followed and he was found guilty. Both defendants were sentenced to two years’ hard labor. J.P. Grain would go on to represent Wilde in his bankruptcy.
Lord Alfred Douglas and T.W. H. Crosland
In the early 20th Century Lord Alfred Douglas became associated with writer and notorious litigant T.W.H. Crosland and joined in his particular brand of sport. One of their many courtroom adventures is relevant to our story.
Henry Frederick Walpole Manners-Sutton v. T.W.H. Crosland December 1909-February 1910
The son of Viscount Canterbury (and later the next holder of that title) had been one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s best friends until he said he would only invest in Douglas and Crosland’s literary journal if Douglas agreed to take a pay cut. In retaliation, Crosland published a series of critical articles that hinted at Sutton’s identity. Sutton was reluctantly all but forced to sue for libel. Solicitor Arthur Newton (who had once acted for Sutton to extract him from an attempt at blackmail) initially acted for Crosland. After the preliminaries he stopped working for Crosland and testified for the prosecution (Sutton) in the trial. The case was heard before Sir F. A Bosanquet (whose nickname, coincidentally, was ‘Old Bosie’.) Marshall Hall, George Elliott and Storry Deans prosecuted. J.P. Valetta and Mr Rich defended. Crosland was found not guilty of libeling Sutton. Although it had no clear connection to the case at hand, Marshall Hall cross-examined Lord Alfred Douglas on his relationship with Oscar Wilde, giving him his first opportunity to tell his story on the stand. He interpreted the verdict as affirmation that he was an excellent witness. Robert Ross, who had fallen out with Douglas, was offended by what he read about the case. Particularly, he was offended by Douglas presenting himself as a reformed character. It was a catalyst that convinced him to ‘set the record straight’ about his former friend.
The Proxy Wars
Ross and Douglas sparred indirectly a number of times before they actually faced off in court.
Douglas v. Ransome and Others April 1913
Douglas sued author Arthur Ransome and the Times Book Club for writing and distributing respectively a biography called Oscar Wilde A Critical Study. This case was the hub around which the battle between Ross and Douglas turned. Ross had assisted Ransome with his biography and gave him select access to Wilde’s personal letters, including unpublished portions of De Profundis. Douglas was upset by the depiction of his role in Wilde’s downfall and sued for libel. Ross bankrolled the defense and provided personal letters that Douglas had written both to Oscar Wilde and to himself as evidence. The letters from Douglas to Ross were some of the most damning as they showed that Douglas was attracted to his own sex. Paradoxically, in a case where the actual libel was that Douglas had abandoned Wilde, the defense argued that a death bed message that Douglas had sent to Wilde through Ross, which contained the line “send him my undying love,” proved that Douglas had prevented Wilde from being reformed after he left prison, which made him responsible for Wilde’s downfall. (Note that this is different argument than the later understanding of Douglas as responsible for Wilde’s downfall because he involved him with rent boys. It was the fact that they were reunited, and continued to love each other in an “unnatural” way, that outraged the court.)
The trial was heard before Justice Charles Darling. Cecil Hayes acted for the plaintiff (Douglas). Hayes was a personal friend who had been a member of the Bar for less than two years. He probably worked pro bono. Ransome was represented by J.H. Capbell and H.A. McCardie. The Times Book Club by F.E. Smith. The jury found that the passage at issue was libelous, but also true. They also found that the Times Book Club had not been negligent in circulating it. Douglas filed an appeal, but was forced to withdraw it because he had been declared bankrupt and was unable to give security for the costs of the trial. Infuriated by what had happened in the case, Douglas and his friend Crosland began a campaign of libel against Robert Ross.
Ross v. Crosland April-June 1914
Following a long campaign of harassment, Ross finally went to court. He was well advised by Sir George Lewis not to file any libel actions that touched on the issue of his sexuality. Ross found an opportunity, however, to sue for conspiring to induce a witness to file a false police statement. (The witness was a young man who claimed to have been kissed and fondled by Ross.) Douglas was out of the country, so Ross filed his lawsuit against Crosland alone. It was clear that Crosland and Douglas were on a vendetta against Ross. But Ross had the misfortune of drawing Justice Horace Avory, who had acted for the prosecution in Wilde’s criminal trials. Not only was Avory prejudiced against anyone associated with Wilde, he had an apparent dislike of F.E. Smith who led the prosecution. Crosland was defended by Cecil Hayes, and supported financially by Douglas’s mother. At issue was whether or not Crosland believed the boy was lying. Crosland was found not guilty. Bolstered by his success, Crosland went on to sue Ross for wrongful prosecution. This time Crosland lost.
Ross and Douglas
Robert Ross and Lord Alfred Douglas only confronted each other directly in court once.
Rex v. Douglas November 1914
Robert Ross finally was harassed into charging Lord Alfred Douglas with criminal libel for pamphlets accusing him of gross indecency and blackmail. The case was heard by Justice Coleridge. Ross was represented by Ernest Wild and Eustace Fulton and the defense by Comyns Carr. The trial was turning against Ross, and both were running out of money. The solicitors negotiated a settlement in which Ross agreed to drop the charges and pay court costs, and Douglas agreed to stop libeling Ross. Douglas found a loophole and had a sporting publication publish a libelous article on Ross’s lover, Freddie Smith. The dossier of compromising letters that Ross had assembled for the defense in the Ransome case continued to haunt Douglas well after Ross’s death. It was used against him in legal proceedings until the early 1920s.
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.
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
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.”
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 Case of the Bitter Best Sellers: Marie Corelli and Hall Caine
Corelli 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
After 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
Writer 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…
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.
…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.
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.
There is a well known writer who has lately been getting a lot of attention on twitter posting threads about how you’re a “real writer” regardless of what you write, regardless of whether it is published or read or has any kind of public recognition or success. She has moved on now to posting about how you’re “a real reader” no matter what kind of book you read. “Whatever you read you are a real reader, no exceptions.”
This has been annoying me, and I have spent some time trying to figure out why.
I agree that there are too many artificial hierarchies in literature. I am someone who has excelled in writing books that are considered “unserious” from The Pocket Encyclopedia to the Elvis Impersonation Kit. I know that they take skill, and that humor is not a lesser talent. I also recognize that the concept of “seriousness” is too often used to degrade work by and for women. I agree that you should like what you like and shouldn’t apologize for your tastes. While vampire romances are not something I prefer to read, I am certain there are good examples an bad examples of the genre.
Not all reading leads to great epiphanies, and there is nothing wrong with pure pleasure reading. Not all art has to aspire to immortality or greatness. Entertainment is just fine. And there are a lot of scholars who find a lot to explore in “low culture.”
So why does the statement that you’re a “real reader” no matter what you read stick in my craw?
First of all, it is a tautology. Yes, if you define “reader” as one who can read, then if you can decipher text on a cereal box you’re a reader, but then, so what? What do you get from calling yourself a “real reader?” You must view it as an honorific if you’re hung up on being one. I don’t hear people reassuring anyone that she is a “real TV viewer” regardless of what she watches, or a “real music listener…”
Focusing on whether you can claim to be a “real reader” is strange to me as it focuses on the personal identity of the person holding the book rather than the value of the contents of the book. It is a symptom of a culture in which how one brands herself–how she is seen by others– matters more than who she is when no one is watching.
Of course the quality of literature matters, or what are we doing here?
The author in question said that she was getting a lot of replies from men who said they never use the expression “guilty pleasure.” This is a gendered concept.
Women talk about romance novels being a “guilty pleasure” whereas men discuss the merits of the various authors in their pulp genres like sci fi and westerns.
If guilty pleasures are gendered, then so too must be the reassuring response that you’re a “real reader.”
Here is what I hear in the expression “guilty pleasure.” If you feel “guilt,” it means you aspire to something better.
When I read that the idea of a “guilty pleasure” was somewhat foreign to men, a lightbulb went off. The problem that I have with the expressions about “real writers” and “real readers” is that they are person praise not process praise. In other words, instead of praising people for achievements, it praises them for their inherent qualities which are seen to be immutable.
Person praise says “you’re a real reader.” (Regardless of what you read.)
Process praise says “congratulations on reading Remembrance of Things Past.”
I’ve written about this concept quite often here. Here’s an excerpt from a previous article:
Back in May, I posted an article called Unstoppable! Self-Esteem, Boy and Girl Style. In the article I took a self-esteem program aimed at young women and flipped the genders to see how the encouragement felt when aimed at boys.
At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound. Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had. In short, they do.
When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty. If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.
Today I was reading the BPS Research Digest and I came across a study that bolsters my subjective point of view.
Laboratory research pioneered by psychologist Carol Dweck has shown the short-term benefits of praising children for their efforts rather than their inherent traits. Doing so leads children to adopt a so-called ‘incremental mindset’ – seeing ability as malleable and challenges as an opportunity to learn. Now a new study co-authored by Dweck and led by Elizabeth Gunderson has made the first ever attempt to monitor how parents praise their young children in real-life situations, and to see how their style of praise is related to the children’s mindset five years later…The key finding was the more parents tended to praise their pre-school age children for effort (known as process praise, as in “good job”), the more likely it was that those children had a “incremental attitude” towards intelligence and morality when they were aged seven to eight. This mindset was revealed by their seeing intelligence and moral attributes as malleable. For example, such children tended to agree that people can get smarter if they try harder, and disagree with the idea that a naughty child with always be naughty…Finally, the study revealed that parents tend to use more person praise with girls and more process praise with boys, echoing similar results in earlier research. In turn, later on, boys tended to express an incremental mindset more often than girls. This tallies with the picture painted in the developmental literature that girls more than boys attribute failure to lack of ability, especially in maths and science.
Person praise values self-esteem over achievement.
To go back to the example of reading, a girl who felt “guilty” about not reading good literature sets to work to feel better about herself. A boy who feels bad that he is not well-read sets himself a goal of reading better literature.
There is nothing wrong with loving yourself just as you are, of course. But when this message is given to only one gender, you end up with a constantly re-enforced dual message. Men achieve, women need to learn to be content while not achieving.
The study that I cited earlier notes that when children are given process praise they perceive of the challenge as learnable, improvable, masterable. They keep trying. It is not that they have failed because of an inherent quality, it is because they have not yet mastered the task. Children who receive person praise on the other hand, internalize everything. “I couldn’t build the tower because I am not good at that.” Personal qualities are seen as inherent and less changeable. If you are not a good builder, there is little reason to try. Those who receive person praise rather than process praise are more likely to give up.
After a lifetime of process praise for boys and person praise for girls, men and women react to rejection differently. Men tend to think, “I have not yet mastered this process, I need to keep trying.” Women tend to think, “Maybe I am not good enough.”
When I get into a writer funk, as I do from time to time, there is one thing you should never do to try to cheer me up: and that is to say that I am a “real writer” whether I achieve anything or not. That does not make me feel better, it is like pouring salt in the wound. Why? Because I am ambitious, and I’m tired of feeling that I should apologize for being upset when I fail to reach goals I set for myself. Don’t tell me that it’s OK that my book didn’t get reviews, or that I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel, because I don’t want to feel OK about that. I want to be dissatisfied with that. It hurts when you fail to live up to your ambitions, but feelings pass. The solution is not to pretend that the ambitions don’t matter. The solution is to get back up and keep working, to regroup, find another route, and keep trying. You may not get there, but you are taking the steps. If you want to get me out of a writer funk, remind me of things I have achieved. Get me fired up about what I can do next. Don’t tell me that I’m beautiful just as I am.
I want to see women succeed, and I think a good first step is to stop giving each other these “It’s ok not to excel” pep talks.
If you post the phrase “if you write you are a writer” on social media you will get a lot of likes.
This is because writing as a career is more than difficult, the odds are stacked against you at every turn. It is almost impossible to make a living at it, and it keeps getting harder as publishers consolidate, professional book reviewers disappear, outlets paying in “exposure” replace the magazines that once sustained freelancers, and massive online retailers keep looking for ways to make books as cheap as dirt. On top of this you have the glut of self-published titles, all vying for attention, with few authorities to really sort out their quality. The ease of publishing means book stores and reviewers are inundated, and they are suspicious of anyone who shows up calling herself a writer. This makes marketing books much harder than it used to be. (And it never was easy.)
So there is a great need for writers, at all stages of their careers, to get some reassurance that even though they have either decided to make writing a part-time job or have taken a self-imposed vow of poverty to pursue it full-time, what they are doing matters. I have had this existential crisis myself many a time, and over the years have found ways to cope with it. The solidarity and reassurance from fellow writers can be a balm, at least a temporary one. So I recognize what people are trying to express when they say “everyone who writes is a writer.”
One of the things that is particularly difficult about assuming the mantle of “writer” is that it is not a career in which you get a diploma that qualifies you. No external authority bestows a title on you. And it has always been true that the most talented are not necessarily the ones who get the most attention. Many a great writer has struggled in obscurity. Moreover, a successful book doesn’t mean that your publisher will necessarily want your next one or your agent will get any interest in your next idea. Each new book is a fresh struggle to get published. It is a career where even some of the most prolific and busy professionals find they can not pay their bills from their labors, so making a living or not making a living is not the mark of a professional. Nor in an era of publishing consolidation is independent vs. traditional publishing a clear-cut way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some great writers and great books are indies. The question of who is a “real writer,” and who gets to decide, is complex.
That doesn’t mean that there is not a difference between the person who posts a pdf of self-indulgent poems about her break up on a blog (or even writes for herself and publishes nothing at all) and the person who has gone through all those professional hoops and who makes the decision to keep doing so. The biography or novel that took a decade to craft, revise and market and someone’s unreadable attempts at self-expression are both are written, and therefore under the “everyone who writes is a writer” standard, both writers share the same title. I know of few careers where the aspirant, trainee or apprentice is granted the same status as the master in quite the same way. Not everyone who cooks is a chef.
I am paraphrasing another writer here, whose quote I cannot find at the moment: You do not have a novel in you waiting to get out, the novel is a peak experience that you are entitled to after a great deal of training and work. This, I will add, includes the work of rejections, revisions and even the frustrating marketing process of trying to get the book to its audience. As the uncredited writer put it, “I do not have a Boston marathon in me waiting to get out.”
To say that if you write, you are a writer is like giving the medal at the beginning of the race.
To continue with the marathon metaphor, this robs the person who has done all the training, suffered the aching muscles, hit the wall and kept going, of meaningful recognition. The struggle matters, and the persistence in the face of struggle matters, and that is what makes the medal matter.
When even the most accomplished struggle to make a living wage for their work, recognition as a professional is often the only real currency a writer has.
I do not think it does any favors for the passionate amateur either. If she is already “a writer” from the moment she picks up a pen, the same as a best-selling internationally renowned writer, there is not anything meaningful to work towards. There are no promotions if those at every level are granted the same title.
There is nothing wrong with being an amateur or writing for pleasure. The existence of professional ballerinas doesn’t keep people like me from dancing. I move my body to the music from time to time, I just don’t claim to be “a dancer.”
Everyone should feel free to dabble in art of all kinds for pleasure. Art is not owned by the professionals. No one should let the fear of making bad art keep them from making art. Nor do I have any intention of denigrating the work or efforts of those who are just beginning. Your efforts deserve respect. Keep at it, and good luck to you. It’s hard, and when the world fails to acknowledge your work (and it will) it doesn’t render it meaningless. It matters that you create, because you make it matter.
I imagine that there is a heaven somewhere where all of the unread literary works go. Their life of the earth is temporary, but their souls are immortal.
I have no doubt that the platitude about being a “real writer” no matter what you produce will continue to be popular. There are far more people in the category of aspirants than those who have successfully run our metaphorical race. I know that my views will get far fewer “likes” and retweets than the more reassuring and inclusive sentiment. I will continue to hate it.
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.
A wonderful Detroit writer who I have had the pleasure to meet at a number of local author events is Jean Alica Elster. As a Kresge Arts fellow, she was featured in a video discussing her work. I thought I would share it here, not only because she’s someone you should know about, but also because she brings up a topic that I’ve mentioned here a number of times: the mourning that follows the completion of a literary work.
The sun is shining through my office window this morning. The spring has brought light snow as it happens. But I spent the chilly evening reading Rupert Croft-Cooke’s “The Caves of Hercules,” a memoir of the author’s time in Tangier.
I ordered the book through Melcat inter-library loan as part of my continuing search for Schwabe– the mysterious member of the Wilde circle who went on to be a card sharp and possibly a spy. Croft-Cooke was the first to suggest that Maurice Schwabe was significant to the Wilde story, although he didn’t say a great deal about him. He included, in one of his books on Wilde, a description of Schwabe he got from “a barkeep” who had known Schwabe in 1910 in Tangier.
When I learned about Croft-Cooke’s “Smiling Damned Villain” an account of the life of a swindler named Paul Lund who he met as a bartender in Tangier, I thought perhaps he was the source. But looking back at Croft-Cooke’s description of what he learned of Schwabe, I found that he described the bartender who knew Schwabe as West Indian, which Lund was not, and I also realized that Lund was the wrong age to have known Schwabe in 1910. But Croft-Cooke did write a whole series of memoirs about his travels. This eventually (I checked out the wrong volume first) led me to “The Caves of Hercules,” which covered his time in Tangier.
I didn’t learn anything about Maurice Schwabe, except for an understanding of how the subject of him came up. Croft-Cooke was working on his biography of Lord Alfred Douglas at the time. He described him as a man who had given him “his ageing friendship and thus a faraway link with Oscar Wilde.”
The reason Croft-Cooke wrote his biography, he said, was that he realized “that there were intelligent people who still saw Bosie Douglas as the man Robert Ross and his followers depicted him.”
His biggest challenges, he said were persuading Douglas’s literary executor, Edward Colman, that he was going to do right by his subject. “Fortunately at the time he accepted my honesty of purpose and allowed me, on payment, the freedom of the Douglas copyright.” His second challenge was obtaining the books he needed in Tangier. He obtained some through a friend who opened an account for him with a specialist book seller, and others were lent and posted by the London Library. (Why won’t the libraries in London mail books to me?)
Croft-Cooke estimated that he spent less than six months writing his Bosie, “but I knew when I came to the end of it that it was the best book I could write.”
I feel a certain kinship with Croft-Cooke when he laments that “it met the fate of every book I had written up til then…No book of mine…has ever reached five figures in hardback editions, and Bosie was no exception.”
“But,” he wrote, “I loved writing it and to some degree I know that– in a useful modern phrase– I had set the record straight. There were people, my late dear friend and literary godfather Sir Crompton Mackenzie among them, who still thought Ross a hero and refused to realize that in his treatment of Bosie he had been a despicable little wretch, and there were still people who labelled Bosie with the epithet used by a miserable scissors-and-paste scribbler whom I know, named Percy Colson, ‘the Black Douglas’; but here and there light dawned and Sir Rupert-Hart Davis wrote me a promise (not, unfortunately, fulfilled) that in the next impression of The Letters of Oscar Wilde he would correct one of the most unjust passages by re-writing a footnote to read– ‘According to Ross’, instead of letting it be supposed that he had accepted the Ross version of what had been done about the ‘De Profundis’ letter after Wilde came out of prison. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago, but they seemed desperately important while I was writing ‘Bosie’…”
His follow-up book was “Feasting With Panthers” in which he wrote that “it is scarcely yet realized what a large part [Maurice Schwabe] played in Wilde’s ruin…” The book brought Croft-Cooke nothing but the initial payment, “which was a modest one.”
“I do not complain,” he wrote, “that I am, and am likely to remain, an extremely poor man; so far from feeling self-pity, I realize, as I have said, that I have the utmost good fortune in being able to earn an unskilled railwayman’s wages by doing what I like best in the world, and during the fourteen years of which I am writing, doing it in cheerful surroundings and among people who interested me. Sometimes I am plaintive enough to say, as the King told the Queen and the Queen told the Dairymaid, ‘I would like a little bit of butter with my bread,’ but the mood soon passes as I start another book.”
And that is a fairly good depiction of this author as well, as I tune out the sounds of crickets chirping over Oscar’s Ghost and dive into the investigation of that intriguing panther. If only I could call Rupert Croft-Cooke on the phone and ask him what else he knew.
La Cause Litteraire today (via its Twitter feed) made me aware that November 1 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry (pictured right).
This gives me an excuse to share one more of my Oscar’s Ghost outtakes. This passage describes what happened when Oscar was finally granted bail before his second criminal trial:
Robert Sherard had rushed to Wilde’s side and was buzzing around, proud to be able to do “menial work for my friend.” This consisted mostly of fetching him glasses of claret. Oscar was deeply depressed and asked Sherard, “Oh, why have you brought me no poison from Paris?” Sherard immediately went to his club library and looked up the effects of various kinds of poison. He told Wilde that he should not consider prussic acid because death only came after forty minute of “indescribable agony.” Wilde decided not to poison himself after all.
Sherard had joined the chorus of people urging him to flee. He was willing “to take the whole care and responsibility of the evasion on my shoulders…” and he took up “counter-police manoeuvers” to see if they were being watched. His emotions were in such a state that Alphonse Daudet, who came to visit him from Paris, was afraid he was losing his mind. Sherard’s dramatizing was exhausting everyone and (Oscar’s brother) Willie Wilde offered to do whatever it took, including to sell his library, to raise the money to send Sherard back to Pairs. Daudet came to the rescue, distracting Sherard by suggesting that they write a book together. The book became Daudet’s My First Voyage: My First Lie, published in 1901.
Sherard would one day write that Wilde’s arrest had ruined his career. After the “crushing blow” he found it difficult to write and his income plummeted. (Writers are always looking for something on which to blame their writer’s blocks and difficulty making a living. Sherard had actually been suffering from financial problems for some time.)
Bosie was no longer encouraging Oscar to stay and fight. He was begging him to come join him on the continent. (Bosie’s brother) Percy Douglas even promised that if he did he would personally reimburse Rev Headlam (who had contributed half of the bail) for his portion of the bail. Sherard, recalled some of the letters that Bosie sent him (which Willie had seen and kept teasing his brother about) “…a curious medley of attractions was set out. There was moonlight on the orange-groves and there were other inducements which need not be particularised.”
Perhaps we can help Sherard on that score. When Douglas arrived in Paris he found a community of artists, sympathetic to Oscar Wilde, who welcomed him into the heart of French Bohemia. The circle revolved around the editors of the Mercure de France, Alfred Vallette and his wife the cross-dressing Rachilde who described herself as a “man of letters” on her calling cards. One of the only women in the circle, she was also the most famous writer of them all.
The Mercure was then based in two second-floor rooms in the three-room home of its editors. It was located on the rue de’l’Ėchaudé off the boulevard Saint-Germain, a dark avenue best known for its many houses of ill repute. The first two rooms were a small reception room, and an office-library. The third was the couple’s bedroom.
There, in a dark red, smoke-filled room, on any given Tuesday could be found an invited assemblage the leading lights the French artistic avant-garde. Paul Valéry referred to them as “a fermenting mix of striking personalities.” They gathered to discuss religion, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and art. There were no formalities, and no servants. Vallette, who hated pretension, opened his own door to his guests himself often dressed in a short jacket paired with his house slippers. Léon-Paul Fargue described the scene, “Almost instantly the little salon was thick with tobacco smoke. The air could be sliced like a loaf, one could barely see anything. All these famous persons seemed as if painted on a canvas of fog…” Wilde had been a habitue of Rachilde’s salon. He once asked if the “enigmatic creature in the black woolen dress” could really be the author of Monsieur Venus.
During Wilde’s trials and in the first part of his incarceration Douglas was frequently seen in the famous cabaret the Chat Noir of Rodolphe Salis in the company of the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, the writer and caricaturist Ernest LaJeunesse and his protoge, the angelic-looking decadent artist Léonard Sarluis. Of Sarluis it was said “La Jeunesse was his mentor and Oscar Wilde was his god.”
As we have seen, Douglas had a religious devotion to the philosophy he believed Oscar Wilde represented. The couple had never been sexually exclusive and so being loyal to the incarcerated Wilde, as Douglas understood it, was not maintaining a chaste celibacy until his return. Rather it was remaining devoted to both Wilde and “the cause.” Being loyal to the cause meant partaking in the sacrament of sex. The extent to which he did so, however, is an open question.
Alfred Jarry’s autobiographical novel Days and Nights disguised the names of the real people who were its characters. The journalist Edouard Julia decoded the names of the characters in penciled notes in his copy, identifying “Bondroit” as Lord Alfred Douglas. The nature of the novel makes it difficult to know exactly how historical these coded adventures were. Sengle, the hero of Days and Nights makes no distinction between day and night– waking consciousness and dreaming. It is all a continuum. Therefore the scene including Douglas could be a faithful memory, an embellished memory or pure fantasy.
The novel describes a group sex scene at Sarluis’s studio, which included Douglas, Sarluis, Henri Albert, Ernest La Jeunesse and one woman, the actress Fanny Zaessinger. The novel dates this as happening before Jarry’s military service in November 1894, but Alastair Brotchie, author of a biography of Jarry, believes it must have happened (assuming it did) around this time.
Bosie wrote from the Hotel des Deux Mondes in Paris on 15 May, “My own darling Oscar, Have just arrived here. They are very nice here and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill, which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had received… Do keep up your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy Bosie.”