The Wildean and Credit Where It’s Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Book Reviews Have in Common with Dating

In many cultures there is a tradition of incorporating a deliberate flaw into a work of art. This shows humility and a recognition that only God (or the gods, as the case may be) is perfect. In Japan they celebrate the concept of finding beauty in imperfection is called wabi-sabi.

To put in a flaw on purpose seems redundant to me. I am quite capable of creating work with flaws without making a special effort, thank you very much.

Still there is something comforting in the idea that art should be imperfect.

Putting your work out in the world has all of the anxiety and vulnerability of dating.

As I have often said, a book is a relationship. It is not completed by the writer but by the reader. So of course a writer is anxious for reviews: to know how the this thing she spent so much time and energy crafting has been received.

Some relationships are better than others. Some books and readers fall in love and others just don’t hit it off.

Putting yourself out there you open yourself up to rejection. Rejection hurts. It hurts in proportion to the amount of love you invested in it.

It would be flattering to hear “you’re perfect in every way.” That rarely happens, in love or literature–or at least in the context of dating, when it does, it doesn’t last. The best case scenario is when two people find each other screwed up in ways that they are willing to accept because they like each other so much otherwise. Relationships have a way of making you aware of your flaws and foibles.

Book reviews are like that too. The best of them say “This was a worthy book but…”

There are different kinds of criticism that show up in reviews. There’s stuff you simply disagree with. It’s a matter of taste and you wouldn’t change a thing. I find I am not bothered by this sort of review.

It’s the stuff where you read and think, “You know, I could probably have done that a bit better,” that tends to sting more.

The problem with a book review is that unlike a relationship, there is no way to work on it. Once you are getting reviews the work is done. It’s printed and set.

So there it is, with all your human imperfections on full display. The existential reality hits you that this thing that you love, that you made the best you could, fails to match its Platonic ideal. It will never be as good as it was in your head.

That’s the time it helps to think about those deliberate flaws in art. It’s not supposed to be perfect. Human beings made it. This wonderfully imperfect thing is beautiful.

How Big Are Pockets in England?

Last week I obtained a copy of the UK edition of the updated Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation. Besides the spelling of “tyres” I noted a few differences in the books. Most notably the prominence, or lack thereof, of the author’s name on the British book cover.

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Whereas the Americans were fine with focusing on life’s little vexations because it is entertaining, the British (who prefer Aaarggghhh to Ughhhhh!!) seem to be marketing the book (curiously to its author) as self-help.

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Also note the lack of an author bio on the back of the UK edition. (Did I do something to piss them off in England?)

The last little oddity is that the books are different dimensions. On the left (as you can tell by the prominence of the author’s name) is the U.S. edition, which is taller and thinner. The UK edition is shorter but wider. Does this point to some international variance in the size of pockets?

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

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

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

See you there?

The Womp Womp Mindset

We live in a country where politicians have always pandered to voters by talking about their hard-working, poor, immigrant ancestors who came here with nothing but a dream and the determination to make a better life for their families.

By sharing these histories, politicians write themselves into the Great American Story.  We are a nation of people who are proud of our humble origins, our struggles to get here, and “the Great American Melting Pot.”

It occurred to me lately that something changed in the last election. Candidate Trump did not tell a heartwarming story about his hardworking immigrant ancestors. He said, “I’m rich, and that makes me smart, and it means the old rules don’t apply to me.” This appealed to a segment of the voters.

Was this the unraveling of the Great American Story? Do we no longer hold as an ideal the story of the poor but hard-working person who works for a better life?

Maybe this is a tacit admission that America’s great age of social mobility has ended and is not coming back. According to research I did for a previous book, if you wanted to be a self-made man in America, the best year to be born was 1850.

Instead of idealizing the land of opportunity, we’ve changed gears and are now just trying to be sure that in this unequal terrain, we’re on the favored side.

Doing away with the story of the poor immigrant ancestor is a good first step if you want to be sure people do not identify with more recent immigrants coming to our shores with nothing but the clothes on their backs, fleeing religious persecution or famine or violence.

It reduces some of the cognitive dissonance people might feel as they idealize their refugee ancestor while applauding a Muslim ban or describing people who cross the Southern border as dangerous, unclean, frightening vermin.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something I wrote in March 2017 when Trump was still a candidate.  I was shocked when a friend of mine, who supported Trump, started to refer to Mexicans as coming to the United States and “popping out babies” so they would be U.S. citizens.

Now we have Donald Trump, a candidate who elicits cheers and sighs of relief for saying “we’re too politically correct,” implying, of course, that those of us who do not agree that Muslims should all be treated as suspected terrorists or that illegal immigrants should be thought of as rapists do not actually believe what we are saying and are simply being polite.

There is room for polite disagreement on immigration policy. This is not about that. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to other and dehumanize groups of people…

To pillory “political correctness” is to overlook the fact that language does matter. There is a difference when you say that an immigrant “pops out a baby” or that she “has a child.” In the first case, you are speaking of her as something less than fully human.

“Is that why they pop out babies? To make them U.S. citizens? Is that why you popped out yours?”…

The strange thing is that illegal immigration has become such a hot button issue now as the number of Mexican immigrants leaving America is now actually greater than the number coming in.

But clearly the scope of the problem is much less important than the political value of having someone from the outside to blame for our ills.

Recently I questioned a Facebook friend who supported Trump and wrote about Mexicans “popping out babies” and getting free stuff in America.  In defending her views, she pointed to her own family history and contrasted it with the baby poppers of Mexico. Her grandfather fled Russia when the communists took over, and was forced to leave all of his possessions behind.

What fascinated me about this response is that being the descendant of a refugee did not produce empathy for other refugees… When her grandfather came to the U.S. he was fortunate that we distinguished between him and the people he was fleeing and did not keep him out because he and the communists were both Russian.

We can debate immigration policy. We can disagree. We can do it with respect.  But we cannot, as a moral nation, accept the notion that empathy is weakness. There is a way to take a hard line on immigration, and do it without dehumanizing people in the process. It is important.

I see a straight line from the anchor baby rhetoric to the moment we’re in today.  “The others” don’t have children for all the complex reasons we do. It is a trick, a ploy, to get citizenship. They are crafty, and it begins with popping those babies out. “Popping out” babies sounds easy. There is no labor. The women do not feel pain, because “the others” do not feel pain like we do. You needn’t worry about that. The children, who were not born the way our children are born, aren’t really our concern.

Yesterday I responded to a friend’s Facebook post. The friend writes Christian novels, and his post expressed a certain ambivalence about the family separation policy. “It’s terrible, but…” One of the people who commented remarked that there is no way to tell which of these immigrants are drug mules and that they put drugs in the babies diapers. Those children, popped out, not born, are now dangers in themselves. They try to trick us into compassion, but we give into it at our own peril. Once the concern was that these babies would grow up to become citizens and take what is rightfully ours (they’re all imagined as being on welfare and taking benefits, not building communities or contributing to the economy).  We’ve now moved beyond that. They are part of a wave that is going to overtake us. They’re going to turn our cities into ” “Blood-stained killing fields. Savagely burning, raping, and mutilating,” as the President put it.

I feel a sense of weariness and sadness having seen a number of my friends describing people by categories and using subhuman language.

Fast Company had a story today on what it called the “empathy gap” in politics. It contrasted MSNBC’s host Rachel Maddow getting choked up on air reading a breaking news story about “tender age” facilities for young children separated from their parents with a Fox News guest, a Trump campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski whose reaction to the news that a child with Down’s Syndrome had been separated from her family by making “the sad trombone noise, which phonetically looks like ‘womp womp.’”

Lewandowski’s reaction to the news that a child with Down syndrome was separated from her parents at the border is literally a parody of sadness. There’s no other possible interpretation, it’s all right there. Whatever he is supposed to feel, as a member of the human race, about a child with Down syndrome separated from her parents, he doesn’t feel it.

Not only does he not feel it, he seems to have contempt for the idea that he should feel something. Tugging at the heartstrings is nothing but an attempt at manipulation, and he is not going to fall into the whole compassion trap.

You can see this same mindset in Trump’s decision to separate families. The idea of tearing crying children from their parents is distasteful to people with normal human empathy. If you have none, or barring that, if you can find ways to tamp down that natural reaction by dehumanizing a category of people, then you are in a position of power. Trump assumed that the people who couldn’t bear to see children harmed would be soft-hearted liberals, not “his” people. (Trump does not aspire to be President of the United States, but President of the Right, in opposition to the Left. “I’m representing the best people on earth, the deplorables,” he said at a campaign rally yesterday.) They would say “We’ll give you whatever you want, just stop hurting the children!” He expected that he would be able to coerce them into agreeing to his wall that way. He underestimated how many Americans there are who have empathy and a sense of history. Or maybe he did not.

Ann Applebaum in an opinion piece in the Washington Post argues that politicians of his stripe use shock and awe tactics to show their strength. They are signalling to their followers that they are willing to be cruel in order to meet their ends.

“Virtue-signaling” is a snide little phrase that people vaguely of the “right” invented to tease people vaguely of the “left.”… it implies insincerity and self-righteousness. Those who brag about doing something good — say, riding their bicycle to work every day — are said to be “virtue-signaling” their desire to fight climate change…

More recently the British journalist Nick Cohen has identified another way of sending social messages. This is something he called “vice-signaling,” and it is precisely the opposite tactic. It applies to politicians who do something evil — deliberately — with the aim of proving they really are very sincere indeed. Cohen invented it in the context of an immigration scandal in Britain which had led not to the deportation of illegal immigrants, but to the deportation of actual British citizens, albeit with poor documentation. When uncovered, the policy led to a scandal and the resignation of the home secretary, Amber Rudd. Cohen argued, nevertheless, that the policy had never been a mistake or an accident: The Conservative Party had decided to pursue cruel and unfair tactics on immigration, precisely in order to “signal” to their base their seriousness about fighting immigration.

This is a useful context in which to understand the reasoning behind the Trump administration’s horrific policy on family separation at the border — a policy that, if it were enacted in another country, would be described by American officials as state-sponsored child abuse. It’s incomprehensibly cruel, separating small children from their parents and sending them to institutions that resemble jails.

…Because it signals to their base that they are really serious about stopping immigration — so serious that they will abuse children, damage families, and shock anybody who cares about civil rights or human rights in the United States or elsewhere.

..Morality is for losers, apparently. Cruelty is for winners. And this will be the long-term effect of vice-signaling: it makes its proponents, and its audiences, vicious themselves.

What has been equally shocking to me is to learn that in a poll 75 percent of white Evangelicals reacted positively to Trump’s family separation policy.

Looking back, it seems as though this moment  is just the culmination of something I’ve been lamenting for a while. A culture that not only fails to make a virtue of compassion, it views compassion as a weakness and as manipulation.

I was writing about a “womp womp” point of view in 2013 when I saw how easy it was for people to come up with reasons not to care about the poor. I wrote about it again in 2017 when Mick Mulvaney tried to cast the people who receive Meals on Wheels as lacking compassion for the taxpayers. With the family separations womp womp-ism has reached a new low.

I don’t know how to conclude this piece except to say that I’ve been feeling an existential sadness over this, and I think I am not the only one.


 

Love the Alien as Yourself

Attorney General Jeff Sessions used a bible verse to justify separating children from their parents at the border.

I will have more to say on this abomination in the coming days, but having a limited amount of time today, I will make only three points.

1. The United States is governed by the Constitution, not the Bible.

2. “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34

3. This is wrong.

Oscar Christ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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