Desperate Romantics

DesromsI have just finished watching the 2009 BBC 2 series Desperate Romantics, which is streaming for free on Pluto these days.  Ten years down the line, I imagine the statute of limitations on spoilers is probably passed, but if you haven’t watched this yet, I’m letting you know that I’m going to talk about plot points from the end of the series.

Desperate Romantics is a fun (it is customary to say “racy”) modern-paced, boy band version of art history. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the swaggering front man of the band. He gets all the attention and the women. John Everett Millais is “the cute one.” He’s the guy who can play six instruments well, can learn any instrument he picks up, he writes the tunes that bring the band to the attention of the hot critic of the moment. (Also he wears a fantastic purple coat.) William Holman Hunt is the drummer. They call him “Maniac.” Finally there is Fred. He’s the guy who loves music and musicians, and decides to be the manager.

As in any good VH-1 Behind the Music, we follow the band from its beginning as a brotherhood of struggling artists. Then life experiences and varying levels of success pulls them apart. At the end Millais is trying to get the band back together again but it seems the reunion tour is just not going to come together.

All three of the artists have amorous adventures with women that came into their lives as model/muses. Poor, loyal, Fred–the only one who is not paired up in the series– is the first to spot the aesthetically perfect milliner Lizzie Siddal. All of the artists fight for the chance to paint her, and Millais has the first success. But she is drawn to the bad boy Rossetti, who promises to bring her into the world of artists by teaching her to paint.

The drama centers more on love making than the art making. The only painting that is really dwelt upon is Millais’ Ophelia. It is used as a foreshadowing device, and Lizzie Siddal by the end of the tale, becomes Ophelia, driven mad by love of an inconstant man. This Ophelia drowns herself in laudanum.

ophelia-john-everett-millais

Each episode begins with a disclaimer that historical liberties have been taken. Not knowing a great deal about the historical figures, my commentary will focus on how they were interpreted as television characters.

Millais is the marrying kind. He is serious and stable and blissful in his family life. Hunt is driven by an internal conflict between a religious desire to renounce the flesh and his lust for a woman of low birth. Rossetti is a selfish womanizer whose brief marriage to his co-muse is depicted as disastrous. The a-historical Fred is mostly there to narrate it all.

The passionate relationship between Rossetti and Siddal gets the most screen time and attention. Siddal is drawn to Rossetti because of his talent and because he can usher her into a new world. She has artistic ambitions of her own, and he helps her to realize them, in spite of his own occasional jealousy at her success as he struggles.

She worries that he will never marry her and give her security. His inability to commit is chalked up to his enjoying the chase and only wanting what he can’t have. Yet, after Siddal almost dies from an overdose, Rossetti reluctantly marries his great love. Rather than being happy ever after, it is the beginning of the end. For Siddal’s artistic mentor John Ruskin stops giving her financial support and tutoring after she is a married woman, and Rossetti is already flirting with his next model at the wedding.  The distraught Siddal takes her own life.

Rossetti is crushed and vows to change his ways. He throws a book of poems that he wrote into her grave. In the last scene, however, he digs the grave up in order to retrieve them.

Thus the problem is cast as Rossetti, and by extension, Hunt, valuing art over relationships. The drama seems to come down firmly on the side of relationships over art. These men could not really love, and that is a tragedy.

In our culture, we tend to attribute characters’ actions to innate personality and character and we give much less weight to societal and external factors.  Was Rossetti broken emotionally and Millais healthy or could there be another explanation for the successes and failures of their relationships?

All of the members of the brotherhood prioritized creating art. Rossetti had less commercial success. To prioritize art, for him, meant financial struggle and irregular income. (He is squatting in someone’s atrium for most of the story.) Millais had early, and continuing, commercial success. This allowed him to prioritize art while making the kind of comfortable living that would allow him to raise 13 children with the help of various servants.  If Millais were squatting and only getting the occasional commission he might be as reluctant to marry as Rossetti. If Rossetti were rich he might have bought a palace for his muse, and even if he did have affairs, it might not have threatened her entire sense of safety.

It strikes me that while we do tend to chalk male character’s actions up to “character” we make more allowance for the effect of social forces on female characters. We’re quite ready to see female characters as being acted upon, in spite of their best efforts. Although Lizzie Siddal is a strong character, with talent and ambition in her own right, she is thwarted time and again by social forces. When she marries she becomes, in society’s eyes, a wife, and loses her external financial support for her art. Yet, she is not married to a man who can give her the traditional role of wife. He is reluctant to have children. He is powerless to support her career. He is not even able to stay focused on her when he finds a new muse model.

After her death the brotherhood sits with Rossetti and discusses the tragedy of his character, his inability to love what he can have. We’re not invited to question Siddal’s love for Rossetti. Does she also prioritize art over love? Is she attracted to Rossetti because she believes the only way to realize her art is to attach herself to this man?

Whether Siddal actually took her own life, or whether it was a tragic accident, has been much debated.  The official report was accident, but Siddal as Ophelia is a much better story.

Watching this series got me to musing on what artistic period we’re living in today, and that will be the subject of a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Microaggression”

I hate the expression “microaggression.”

Don’t get me wrong– I think the concept itself is important. The idea behind it is that it is often not large overt actions but a never-ending series of small slights and assumptions that keep people marginalized.

We should all try to be more aware of the little things that we might do that uphold unfair systems.

But I hate calling these behaviors “microaggressions” because calling it “aggression” assumes that the person who mis-genders someone, or makes the knee-jerk assumption that the woman is the secretary not the boss, is doing this purposefully in order to harm the other person and keep her in her place. It assumes that the speaker intends to uphold a system that marginalizes other people. They intend to harm you in order to assure their own elevated place. In the vast majority of cases this is not true. These are not microaggressions but microignorances.

Here is why I think this matters.  If you assume a person is behaving with a violent intent– that they mean to do you harm– there are only a couple of ways to respond. You can attack the enemy or you can wall them off and avoid them to avoid being attacked again.

Neither of these responses does anything to solve the problem of ignorance. In fact, if the other person feels attacked, it can have quite the opposite effect, causing them to write you off as an enemy and use that as evidence that their prejudices are justified.

I would like to share a moment from last night’s Equality Town Hall on CNN. This is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, talking about finding common ground with people who have been taught that people like him are sinful.  (An attitude that actually goes beyond “micro” behavior to overt discrimination.) Buttigieg’s view is that faced with people who have a hard time changing their views “we are called to compassion. We are called on to seek out in one another what is best…”

This is what viewing the problem as ignorance rather than aggression looks like.

 

Beautiful Untrue Things

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wildewi-3

(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)

Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.

This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.

I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.

“Never,” came the reply.

So Wilde didn’t say that.

But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.

Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.

Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.

Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?

 

 

The Commodification of Time

I got to musing about time.

I was thinking about that wistful feeling when you think back on a book that you wrote, which meant a lot to you but which failed to set the world on fire. Thinking about the process of writing the expression “invested so much time” flitted across my brain.

I stopped to consider why was I using an economic metaphor to think about time? Time is something I “spend” or “invest.” I suspected that “invest time” was a modern expression and I checked the Google ngram viewer.

Invest Time Gif

As you can see, the expression “invest time” and its variants really gained traction in the 1960s and has been growing ever since. “Spend time” had a bit more use early on, but it seems to have grown with industrialization and really rocketed, along with the expression about investing time, in 1960.

Spend Gif

As I was born after 1960, I found it hard to come up with a comparable, older, expression to test against these. I drew a giant blank. The closest I came up with was to work for many years on something. This lacks the aspect of laboring over a period so it will pay off (another financial expression) later. Reap and ye shall sow.

What I’ve learned from all this pondering is that I find it surprisingly hard to break out of the frame of thinking of time as a precious commodity that can be spent or invested as one would budget a salary.

Maybe Arlo Guthrie has it right:

Playing to the Cameras

Recently Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was on the Daily Show. She shared her view that oral arguments before the court should not be televised because the temptation to play to the cameras would change the nature of the proceedings.

Sotomayor believes that partisanship in Congress started to grow when cameras were allowed in. Since then senators have been standing on the empty senate floor speaking “to the camera not to each other… Many senators told me that they felt much of the collegiality died when they stopped getting together in that room and were forced to listen to each other and were forced to sit next to each other and talk to each other.”

Bloomberg today shared a clip of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg who has invited a press pool to travel with him on his bus. This is something, they note, has not been done since John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” in 2000. The candidate pointed out that this means that campaigning hasn’t been done this way “since the social media era began.”

Why have a bunch of journalists, who might not present you as you’d like, follow you around when you can reach the public directly with a tweet?

In both cases, the Senators speaking directly to the camera, the presidential candidates tweeting directly to the public, you’re bypassing confrontation and pushback, and also bypassing the natural empathy that tends to come with face to face conversation. It is much easier to caricature someone’s position and use it to your own ends when they’re not sitting beside you.

It’s not just the politicians though. Voters play to the cameras too. Buttigieg observed that instead of shaking hands, the people who meet him want a photo with him.

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A handshake is just between two people. It can not be shared with a wider audience. We’re more focused on having something to show to the people not in the room than on the quality of the interaction in the room. The unobserved moment may as well not exist.

It struck me that in the social media age we’ve all become adept at playing to the cameras. We have more outlets than ever to share our views with the world, and at the same time, our desire to have two way conversations has dwindled.

You see the result in a lot of disputes where people do not even think to talk to a person directly before going to an authority or the public to complain. “So and so said/did this and it made me uncomfortable and he/she should be fired…” And in response, the problem the organization seeks to solve is often the PR disaster rather than the interpersonal conflict between these individuals. They, too, play to the cameras.

We have an entire attention based economy, where we try to “build platforms” and get clicks and likes. (Chris Hayes had one of the best observations about social media, he called it, if I remember rightly, “weaponizing our human need for affirmation.”)

As I previously mentioned here, Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed.

Because there is nothing everyone agrees on we form little safe zones online where we assume most people will look at things as we do. Within these tribes the range of discussion and thought becomes homogenized.

Is it possible that the pendulum has swung as far as it can in the direction of broadcasting ourselves and that we’re due for a shift back to a culture that values community and face to face interaction over being known to a large impersonal audience? Have we all used our proverbial 15 minutes and gotten sick of it? Time and Twitter will tell.

Yucky Framing: “Cracking Down” on Homelessness

According to the Washington Post, members of the Trump administration are in California where they toured an unused FAA facility with a view towards converting it into housing for the homeless.

You can argue about the administrations motivations for this move, its ability to address the problem, the wisdom of using an FAA facility and so on, but finding a place for people who cannot afford homes seems like a worthy enough goal.

What struck me about the newspaper coverage, however, was how this project was described. Trump is pushing for “a major crackdown” on homelessness, the report said.

It is not a “plan to help,” “an anti-poverty initiative” or “a major effort.” No, it is a “crackdown.”

This is not the kind of language we generally use when referring to people who have suffered setbacks and need help. You would not be likely to “push for a major crackdown” on people losing their homes to foreclosure, or a “crackdown” on people not earning enough to pay their medical bills, or a “major crackdown” on people being laid off from their jobs.

By calling it a “crackdown” we’re being asked to see homeless people through a criminal lens. This makes the issue not how we can address the underlying issues and the system that leaves so many people unable to afford a roof over their heads to a problem of these people annoying those of us with homes by sleeping in places that we would enjoy more without their presence. Put another way: the problem is not that they have no place, it is that they’re in our public space.

I find myself thinking of that famous Anatole France line “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Of course, having people sleeping rough in public spaces, or camped in tent cities, poses many complex problems for both the homeless and the people who have other uses for those spaces. The question is, is criminality the best and most useful way to frame and address the problem?

 

Why Wasn’t Wilde’s De Profundis Sent to Lord Alfred Douglas?

One of the great mysteries surrounding Oscar Wilde’s prison manuscript, posthumously titled De Profundis, is why the original hand-written version was never sent to Lord Alfred Douglas.

Wilde gave written instructions to Robert Ross, not yet his literary executor, to print up a typescript that he could work from and then to send the original to its adressee, Douglas. This never happened, and in later litigation Ross claimed that Wilde gave him verbal instructions that contradicted what he had written earlier. Ross and Wilde must have had conversations about the manuscript, but we’ll never know what they discussed.

Over the years a certain mythology has been built up over the Ross-Douglas-Wilde triangle. Because Ross and Douglas spent years locked in furious conflict, people have naturally assumed that they were always rivals.  I don’t believe this is true for various reasons that I lay out in Oscar’s Ghost. During the period in question they were friends. Friends who sometimes quarreled, but friends none the less. (Ross, in court, said he was good friends with Douglas until the period when Douglas was editor of the Academy.)

I believe the long-time-rival understand of their relationship has colored the interpretations of Ross’s motivations for holding back De Profundis. The most common theory is that Ross, recognizing the value of the letter, persuaded Wilde not to send the original to Douglas because he believed Douglas would rip it up, as he most likely would have done.

But ripping up the original hand-written document would not have destroyed the work, just the manuscript. Ross had been instructed to send the manuscript only after he had completed a typescript that Wilde could work from.  As long as Wilde had a typescript, he wouldn’t need the original to create a publishable work and Douglas could throw the prison letterhead on the fire if he liked.

It became important later that Ross had the original hand-written letter because it proved Wildean authorship. But this cannot have been his concern at the time. He had no idea that Wilde did not have long to live.

I would like to propose another reason why Ross might not have sent the manuscript to Douglas: friendship.

In later legal actions, Ross claimed he had sent a full typescript of De Profundis to Douglas. It is certainly a possibility that he did and that Douglas didn’t read much of it and destroyed it never thinking it would come up again.  (If he received a typescript, however, he would have known that there was an original out there somewhere.)

According to Douglas, he received something from Ross, which he described as consisting of what he later surmised were excerpts of the long letter. He said it was too short to be De Profundis, but as predicted, he didn’t read much before he threw it away.  Oscar Wilde’s letters make it clear, however, that Douglas had been warned by Ross and More Adey that a negative letter was coming.

According to Douglas, what he received came with a cover letter from Ross apologizing that he had to send it, and telling him not to take it seriously because Oscar was not himself.

Robert Ross was a person who liked to involve himself in his friends’ affairs, not only their artistic business, but their relationships. In fact, Ross did try to defend Douglas to Wilde while he was in prison. Wilde would not hear of it. If Ross persuaded Wilde not to send De Profundis it could well be that he thought it would be too painful for Douglas.

If that is the case, it is feasible that Douglas’s account is true, that he never received the full letter but instead something mitigated by Ross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bosie: The Case for the Defense

On February 26, the Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum hosted a theatrical event, “The Trial of Lord Alfred Douglas,” the mock trial staged at the Oscar Wilde Temple, to determine whether Douglas was guilty of the physical and artistic murder of Oscar Wilde. The case for the prosecution was handled author and activist Peter Scott-Presland, who argued that Bosie was a horrible little reckless rat and but for him Wilde would have lived to be 95, would have written things far greater than he did in his life and would have a statue on horseback. (That is my paraphrase.) Counsel for the defense Andrew Lumsden, a member of the Gay Liberation Front argued that Bosie was a gay rights pioneer and that England, not he, was guilty of Wilde’s murder. Listening I had something of the sense of what would happen if you set Richard Ellmann’s “Oscar Wilde” up against Neil McKenna’s “The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde” and the two books started to argue with each other.

The event was recorded, so you can listen for yourself and play your own part as a juror.

 

I don’t find myself in sympathy with either of these arguments. If you will indulge me, le me play the part of the defense for a moment:

As fun as it is to argue over whether Lord Alfred Douglas was a reckless little rat or admirable in his boldness for the cause of gay rights, it’s not actually all that relevant to the question of whether he is guilty of Wilde’s downfall. The question before the jury is whether Douglas knew or should have known that his actions would likely lead to Wilde’s downfall and early death.

To ask would Wilde have suffered an early death but for Douglas is to ask whether the outcome was inevitable. Looking back it sure seems that way. Looking forward, as they were, there were many possible paths.

For many reasons Wilde’s case was a-typical. Because of this, all of Wilde’s friends’ experience worked against them. As the prosecution points out, the circle of activists surrounding Wilde (Douglas was not the only champion of “the cause”) did know of the fallen martyrs, the people who were sent to jail. They also knew of many, many men who had their cases brushed under the rug because they were too publicly embarrassing. Or who paid the blackmail to the right renters and solicitors to make things go away. There were even cases of people they knew to be homosexual who sued over the libel of being called homosexual and won. It was perfectly reasonable to believe Wilde was going to win his libel suit or after that to win his criminal trials.

If we are to decide whether or not Wilde would have gone to prison but for Douglas, do we not need to also have trials for all the other “but fors” that had to line up just right to produce this historical outcome?

Douglas did urge Wilde to press on with his libel suit, and of course he had special influence, but he was not alone in this. Until years after Wilde’s death, it was common for people to talk about Wilde being urged on by his friends in the plural. None of these friends pushed him in that direction because they wanted Wilde dead, or didn’t care if he was destroyed. They believed he would triumph. Until the second day of Wilde’s libel trial, when things took a shocking turn for the worse, the press largely agreed. If there was that much public sentiment that the case would be ruinous–for Queensberry– can we expect Douglas or anyone else to be certain they were wrong?

 

 

15 Bookish Battles

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

Diminishing Intellect: Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Independent tells it this way:

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

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

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

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

Illustration for Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

Bone of Contention: Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clashing Canadians: Irving Layton and Elspeth Cameron

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milne never forgave Wodehouse. He died in 1956.

The Importance of Stealing Earnest: Oscar Wilde and Charles Brookfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peeved Poet: Laughton Osborn and William Leete Stone

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

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

Psychic Plagarism: Marie Darriussecq and Camille Laurens

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Cathedral Thinking

Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris fire aftermath, France - 16 Apr 2019A quote in a story reported in Positive News made me happy. It comes from 16-year-old climate activist  Greta Thunberg.

It is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision, it will take courage, it will take fierce, fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations where we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.

Cathedral thinking.

As you know if you’ve followed this blog, I became depressed in the wake of the fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. I’ve been giving thought to why the criticisms of repairing the cathedral had such an effect on me, and I think the answer might be found in the phrase that I found so uplifting.

When you are invested in a cause, or are enthusiastic about a political candidate, there are two ways to react when you see people pouring their energy into a different effort. You can identify with that enthusiasm and take inspiration from what they are doing right, or you can resent them and view their enthusiasm as energy that is being siphoned away from your own project.

The second version sounds like “Why are we spending money on a building when we are ignoring climate change?” The first says, “If we can rebuild the cathedral, there is nothing we can’t do if we pull together. Let me tell you about something that needs that energy.”

Cathedral thinking.

We have more means of communication than ever, and yet we have never felt so unheard. We act as though concern, compassion, empathy and respect are finite and we’re in competition for them.

There are two ways to put your issue on the same level as others. You can either lift yours up, or tear others down. Tearing down is easier than building. You can do it with a few keystrokes. You can do it with sarcasm or a sneer.

Incidentally, in the first edition of Trevor Noah’s new podcast “On Second Thought,” he and his guest David Kibuuka talked about the backlash to the effort to rebuild Notre Dame, and they suggested that the reason people responded so quickly to that cause rather than something like world hunger or climate change is because fixing a cathedral is finite. It is something that you can contribute to and see the problem solved, whereas poverty or climate change are much more complex. People like to be part of something were they can feel like they achieved something. A moon shot.

Arlo Guthrie said of the 1960s, “I came out of that time thinking I’d only met two kinds of people–people that give a damn and the people that don’t. And the truth was that you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue. In the long run I thought I’d had more in common with people who cared about stuff than people that might’ve sided with me on an issue or two.”

It can be hard to find the commonality in “giving a damn.” Sometimes people’s eyes need to be opened to the way their causes rhyme. But I can tell you the worst way to persuade anyone of anything is to criticize their enthusiasm and to tell them what they ought to care about instead.

Instead of grumbling that people were not paying enough attention, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg said, “Let’s make climate our cathedral.”

That gave me hope.