We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
How Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence changed him.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on writers who found God from behind bars, here.
The first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison, it was 1882—thirteen years before he’d serve the famous criminal sentence that produced De Profundis, his 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Financially pressed and known primarily as a public speaker—by then he had only published a thin volume of poems—he’d committed to a nine-month lecture tour of America. During his stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, he and the young literature professor George Woodberry were taken to visit the local penitentiary. The warden led them into a yard where, Wilde later wrote the suffragist journalist Helena Sickert, they were confronted by “poor odd types of humanity in striped dresses making bricks in the sun.” All the faces he glimpsed, he remarked with relief, “were mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”
By 1889, Wilde’s judgments about prison had become less snobbish, if no less flippant. Reviewing a volume of poetry by Wilfred Blunt “composed in the bleak cell of Galway Gaol,” he agreed with the book’s author that “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.” And yet the idea that prison was basically common, a strengthening exercise for the lower classes, still attracted him as a dark, wicked opportunity to conflate the awful with the trivial. As late as 1894, he could have the mischievous, debt-ridden Algernon insist midway through The Importance of Being Earnest that “I am really not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” When Algernon hears from a threatening solicitor that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” he answers indignantly: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Read More >>