Martyr for Gay Rights was Little-Known Prison Reformer

Editor’s Note: The recent bestselling novel by Jessmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, investigates the generational trauma of a racist prison system and this year is the Free Library of Philadelphia’s “One Book, One Philadelphia.” Philadelphians are encouraged to read it together, accompanied by workshops and public programs connected to the novel’s themes. The prison system has been dehumanizing incarcerated persons throughout modern history, but prison reform has been a location of resistance for as long as prisons have existed. In this post, we want to highlight a record of resistance held in the Free Library of Philadelphia Rare Books Department.


Oscar Wilde as Inmate and Subversive

By Caitlin Goodman

In 1895, the writer Oscar Wilde was at the height of his fame. But the debut of his newest play, The Importance of Being Earnest, only narrowly avoided a tabloid scene: the Marquess of Queensbury was planning to throw a “bouquet” of rotting vegetables at Wilde. His vendetta was instigated by the romantic relationship between Wilde and the Marquess’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Gay sexual relationships were illegal in England at the time, and Wilde sued the Marquess for libel after being called a sodomite. But Wilde did have sexual relationships with men, and many were willing to testify to it. Wilde dropped his libel suit, but was immediately charged with sodomy and gross indecency. The first trial ended with a hung jury, but a second trial found him guilty. Wilde spent two years in prison, mostly at Reading Gaol.

Typescript of the redacted and previously unpublished portion of De Profundis discussing Wilde’s relationship with Douglas. It was read into public record in open court during Lord Alfred Douglas’s libel suit against Oscar Wilde’s biographer, Arthur Ransome. 1913.

In Wilde’s time in prison he was denied books, and only permitted reading and writing materials after the direct intervention of a politician. (A resonance with the present day: the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recently reversed a much-criticized ban on donating books to incarcerated people.) Once able to write, Wilde spent his time on a long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde gave the letter to his friend and former lover Robbie Ross with the instruction that Ross type up two copies and send the original on to Douglas. Ross (rightly!) feared that Douglas would destroy the manuscript, and instead sent only a typed copy, which Douglas did promptly burn. Wilde died a few years after his release from prison and Ross heavily redacted Wilde’s letter and published it posthumously as De Profundis, a meditation on the spiritual and emotional cruelties of prison.

Oscar Wilde’s handwritten draft of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a fragment of Canto III. 1897.

Wilde today is perhaps best remembered as a wit and a martyr for gay rights but the last piece he published is instead a powerful critique of the prison system. After leaving prison, Wilde also left England, never to return. He spent the summer with Robbie Ross, where he wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” In contrast to much of Wilde’s earlier work, the poem adapted the English folk tradition of ballad recitation. It was first published anonymously in early 1898 credited to “C.3.3.” – Wilde’s cell location in Reading Gaol. It was over a year until Wilde’s authorship was widely known, after the poem had already found widespread and immediate success.

Final page of the first American edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, crediting the poem to C.3.3. 1899.

 

Before you throw that out …

Screenshot of Netflix series “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo”

 

It’s January, and some of us made decluttering one of our new year’s resolutions. We’re making space in our closets, in our children’s toy boxes, in our kitchen cabinets, on our bookshelves, on our phone and computer hard drives, and in our Dropbox, Google Drive, or other cloud-based storage. We’re following tidy-up guidelines based on variations of the quote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” attributed to William Morris, an English textile designer associated with the British Arts and Crafts movement. Most tips for decluttering have to do with getting rid of the old, unused, or worthless to make space for the new, useful, and desired. They’re about living in the now.

Tossing seemingly useless objects and documents out is practical for my daily life, but frightening when it comes to my work on an archives project. I imagine someone in need of physical, mental, or emotional space and who doesn’t know how their photos, ticket stubs, journals, or books a used bookstore didn’t give them enough money for could ever  be useful to anyone, throwing them away. I want to yell, “Stop!” and snatch their hands from the drawstring of the trash bag. A bit overdramatic perhaps, but when historians, students, journalists, and other researchers put together narratives of lived experience from the previous generation or century, they find material in the everyday things that, if we kept them, might make us seem like hoarders, not archivists.

This is true even when it comes to records of resistance. We’ve been asking the public to define resistance and tell us who their Philadelphia resistance heroes are. So far, not one person has defined resistance as a public protest or participation in other mass action. So far, most of the people named as heroes are anonymous or are known in select communities. They are family members, community elders, artists, poets, self–names unlikely to make it into a K-12 or college textbook but imperative to our existence now, important for personal or community self-determination in the future, and a career highlight to historians who know how challenging it is to find voices of “everyday people” in the historical record.

So before you toss that embarrassing box of notes you passed to and received from your friends in fourth grade, rethink how useful, beautiful, and valuable your history is.

And if you just don’t want the stuff in your house, perhaps you can learn from Democratic political strategist and author Donna Brazile’s decluttering experience.