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.
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.
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.