Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bosie And The Danger Queen

Jesus, what a foofy outfit!

I slowed down drastically in my book reviewing after 1984, but I'm not sure why the next Gay Community News review I can find wasn't published until 1987. (The May 10-16 issue.) I'll have to dig some more. Meanwhile, here's the next one I have.

Lord Alfred Douglas
by H. Montgomery Hyde
Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1985
$19.95 cloth, 366 pp.

Oscar Wilde: an illustrated biography
by Martin Fido
Peter Bedrick Books/Harper and Row, New York, 1985
$9.95 paper, 144 pp.

More Letters of Oscar Wilde
edited by Rupert Hart-Davis
The Vanguard Press, New York, 1985

On the day that we stand before the Goddess to give account of our lives, Oscar Wilde will have a lot to answer for. He was the centerpiece of probably the biggest homosexual scandal in modern Western history. While the severity of his punishment - 2 years at hard labor - won some sympathy for homosexuals generally and for him in particular, it also scared uncounted English gay men deeply into their closets for years afterward. He reinforced the association of male homosexuality with a sickly, gilded aestheticism which collected and mounted sins like dried butterflies - and Wilde never seriously challenged the idea that diddling boys was sin. (He could have. Walt Whitman's poetry is free of the taint, and it was earlier than Wilde's work; Wilde had even met Whitman.) Numerous writers have suggested that it was this sense of sin that led Wilde into the disastrous libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury which backfired and sent him to Reading Gaol. This may well be true. Wilde was clearly a danger queen, as can be seen from his fondness for "feasting with panthers" (i.e., consorting with blackmailers). But his personal pathology is of interest mainly as it relates to his pernicious and long-lived influence on other gay men's lives and art.

Of course, blackmail, scandal, and ruin are perennial money-makers, so Wilde has also been the subject of a minor publishing industry devoted to his life and art. Since his story had a gloriously unhappy ending, publishers could safely titillate the public with books about Wilde, his sin, and its wages. This had its flip side: for while writers about Wilde could and must deplore unnatural and unspeakable vice, all those books and articles led to homosexuality's becoming less unspeakable. While the only books about homosexuality a young gay kid might be able to find in the public library (aside from Bieber-Bergler clinical bigotry) would be about the Wilde scandal, at least there would be some nonmedical books about homosexuality there, and a bright kid might realize that if Wilde had had brain one, he could have stayed out of trouble. Nowadays, in our allegedly more enlightened and permissive times, the accounts are a little more lurid and detailed, but the stench of formaldehyde still hovers over the analyses.

An example of what I'm talking about is Oscar Wilde: An Illustrated Biography, by Martin Fido. This large glossy paperback, originally published in England in 1973, tosses out a few details of Wilde's sexual tastes and practices, but thanks one "Dr. Sumi Verma [who] gave me expert advice on the psychopathology or homosexuality." In researching his books on Dickens and Kipling, I wonder, did Fido consult experts on the pathology of heterosexuality? Despite its mildly patronizing tone, however, the book does give an adequate brief account of Wilde's life and times, and the illustrations (many in color) are well-chosen. Not bad for $9.95.

More Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, illustrates another aspect of the Oscar industry. Anyone who possesses a copy of Hart-Davis's huge 1962 edition of Wilde's letters will probably want this addendum for completeness' sake: 164 of the two hundred-odd letters which have turned up since 1962. Wilde always wrote gracefully, and More Letters can be read with pleasure, but the fact remains that most of them are on the level of this 1889 telegram to Clyde Fitch ("Prolific and successful American dramatist [1864-1909]," Sir Rupert helpfully informs us): "What a charming day it has been Oscar." I don't think this is a good place to start if you are interested in Wilde's letters; look for the 1979 Selected Letters, which is available in paperback, instead.

In the case of a martyrdom like Wilde's there is always the temptation to look for a villain, and for a long time Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas was cast as Judas by Wilde's admirers. While in prison, Wilde had written Douglas a long letter, later published as De Profundis, in which he accused the boy of having ruined him by spending all his money, distracting him from his art, goading him into suing Queensbury (Douglas' detested father), and abandoning him to his fate. But Douglas had his own admirers, who have done their best to rehabilitate him, with some success. The chief work was done by Rupert Croft-Cooke, who showed in Bosie (1962) that many of Wilde's charges simply were not true. Croft-Cooke, who had known Douglas personally, also insisted that he was a kindly man, capable of generous encouragement to young writers, and a talented if old-fashioned poet. Now H. Montgomery Hyde, an English barrister who has become one of the pillars of the Oscar Wilde industry with important books on Wilde's trials and on male homosexuality in Victorian England, has published a biography of Douglas which follows in Croft-Cooke's footsteps.

The trouble is that while Douglas was not quite as bad as his enemies claimed, he was still an amoral, paranoid little scumbag who in later life became a self-righteous prig without sacrificing one iota of his amorality or paranoia. Both Croft-Cooke and Hyde try to build Douglas up by running down Robert Ross, who earned a reputation as the man who stood by Wilde through thick and thin and restored his good name years after his death -- and, not incidentally, published De Profundis.

It is true that Douglas remained in England at risk to himself after Wilde's arrest, visiting him in jail, raising money for him, trying to defend him in print after his conviction, and helping to support him after his release from prison. It is also true that Ross had not been linked sexually (and therefore criminally) to Wilde. We know now that Ross boasted privately of having been "Oscar's first boy" and that his homosexuality was more or less an open secret, but his later rehabilitation of Wilde did not put him at risk as it would have Bosie, who also had to rehabilitate himself. It is also true that Ross behaved very badly, not only keeping incriminating letters that legally and morally belonged to Douglas, but supplying those letters to Douglas's adversaries in his many court battles. (Douglas, on the other hand, would probably have destroyed the letters, so posterity's debt is to Ross.) But both Croft-Cooke and Hyde tend to minimize the fact that, unlike Douglas, who in a few years was denouncing Wilde as "the greatest force for Evil that has appeared in Europe during the past 350 years" (Hyde, p. 225), Ross worked devotedly to return Wilde's work to public attention and raised his estate from bankruptcy. Ross also helped many living writers, and he was rightly honored for his services to literature when Douglas was trying to expose him as a bugger.

Now, Ross was no prize: his private life was as seamy as Wilde's. Douglas, by contrast, lived a mostly "respectable" private life after Wilde's death: heterosexual marriage interrupted by one brief adulterous (but heterosexual) fling when his wife left him, followed by years of - so he claimed - chastity. (I don't know whether to credit Samuel Steward's story of tricking with the elderly Bosie.) His public life, by contrast, was spectacularly nasty. Aside from his protracted campaign to destroy Robert Ross, he drifted into yellow journalism as the patron and disciple of T.W. Crosland. This involved him in numerous libel suits both as plaintiff and defendant, culminating in a prison term for proclaiming that Winston Churchill had been in the pay of Jewish bankers during the First World War. (Both Hyde and Croft-Cooke try to distinguish Douglas's anti-Semitism ["the Belloc-Chesterton variety"] from the "racialist" variety implemented by Hitler. This is horseshit. The lies Douglas - and Belloc and Chesterton - helped to circulate were the same paranoid fantasies used by the "racialists," who simply availed themselves of eugenic pseudo-science as an additional prop for their bigotry.) The point is that, his defenders to the contrary, Douglas never reformed, since homosexuality is not reprehensible. His most unappetizing qualities - vanity and bigotry - he hugged close to himself throughout his life.

If you are curious about Alfred Douglas, Hyde's book is a good successor to Croft-Cooke's now out-of-print biography. It's useful to see Douglas in the round, rather than as the boy who betrayed St. Oscar; and it's a real challenge to practice recognizing the humanity even of villains by contemplating the example of Bosie, a man who made a virtual career of denying the humanity of everyone who ever got in his way.