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Oscar Wilde's Love Letters

The Importance of Earnest Oscar Wilde is about to get a bit more earnest. But is it important? A few days ago, a collection of his love letters to editor Alsager Vian fetched £34,000 at a Derby auction house. The five letters were written during the height of his fame in 1887, and until recently hadn't been revealed. They hint at his homosexuality and expose his interest in the young male editor. Fervid Wilde fans and scholars will jump at the chance to read a few more words by their favorite author. While I am just as fascinated, and recognize that as a literary giant, Wilde is open to public scrutiny, I've been thinking about the ethics of publishing private thoughts posthumously. When Sylvia Plath's unabridged journals were published in 2000, many felt that it was long overdue, and that Ted Hughes had unfairly kept them under lock and key. Was it unfair? Do Sylvia's fans have a right to read everything she ever wrote? What do you think? Do Oscar's private letters add to his canon and help us understand him or his work better? Or is it the literary equivalent of a Paris Hilton up-the-skirt moment?


Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by Emily

You know, its an interesting question, and one I'm not sure I can honestly answer. I value both privacy and biography (+ I'm kind of a snoop)… it is both intriguing and invasive.

I recently read Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose and admired the narrator's choice to hint at, but not reveal the most private and compromising aspects of the protagonist (his grandmother) as he writes from her letters.

I also recently caught part of an NPR program in which they were discussing why a writer's letters and journals are auctioned and treasured but never their libraries. This came out of a conversation with someone who had recently acquired Melville's copy of Paradise Lost, which undoubtedly unfolds all kinds of interesting comparisons when read alongside Moby Dick… Is someone's personal life more influential than their choice in literature?

It's a good question. I'm going to chew on it for a bit.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by christine

I think its a tough call with diaries and letters. Not sure if Oscar would have ever written the letters if he knew that they'd be on public display later on.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by BakerGirl

This is an interesting question…

I personally love reading the diaries and letters of authors who are no longer on this earth. However, I do acknowledge that they were never meant for public consumption… It's a fine line. However, when I write in my diaries and letters I often think about how neat it would be if someone read them 50-100 years later.

I have read some letters that were written between my deceased grandmother and her parents. I love those letters because they are part of her legacy.

I think anyone who writes professionally should acknowledge the fact that their diaries and letters are just as much a part of their legacy as their written/published works.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by Vanessa

Whether it's a letter or diary, neither would have been meant for public consumption. If Oscar Wilde had wanted them to be published he would have done it himself. The same goes for Sylvia Plath and anyone else whose private thoughts are posthumously revealed. Sure it's interesting for us, but it just doesn't feel ok.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by lisa

Not sure what to think about this, but it is surely an interesting question.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by April

This question is far too easy for me to answer. Publishing the private thoughts, diaries, or letters of anyone – dead or alive, well known or not – is wrong.

Definitely an upskirt shot if you ask me. Whether we, as readers, are curious or not should be beside the point. Of course we're curious, but I think it's an ethical point – and my ethics disagree with prying into places I was not meant to see.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by risamay

That's a great question. Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes. Oscar's private letters DO add to his canon and help us understand both the man and the man's work better.

How much did we all BENEFIT and learn of the Holocaust and the experience of hiding from the very private diary of one Anne Frank?

Whether we're talking about a literary legend or a modern million-heiress harlot, personal papers will always give insight into the person who penned them. For better, or worse.

'Tis just the nature of private papers.

Speaking of which, is this not unlike reading a spouse's emails or private letters? You may think you know someone – spouse, friend, family – but just a single private email or letter could turn what you know of a person close to you inside out.

Again, 'tis just the nature of private papers. No matter to whom they belong.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by Paris Paul

As much as I hate fence straddlers, I'm afraid I'm well balanced on one here. I don't really think the letters will add much to his literary work because 1) there are too few letters and 2) I don't imagine he spent as much time and effort on them as he did on his "craft". Of course, as I haven't read the missives, I could be wrong.

Regardless, and just like those Paris Hilton upskirt moments, I'd sure love to see them!

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by nichole

Wow. Lots to think about thanks to your thoughtful responses.

I've been talking to Evan about it, and we were using his grandmother's unfinished book as an example.

She all but completed her "life story" before she died, but never had time to edit it. It's now a family treasure, but she did intend for it to be read by others.

Quite different than her private letters, none of which my husband's father has shared with the rest of the family.

Jul 19, 2014 • Posted by risamay

Further thoughts: One can purchase the postcards and letters of strangers from estates and shops, after the author's or owner's death. People love old postcards and letters with strangers' words. Something I have no problem with.

Also, think of all the letters from strangers and famous figures alike that have lent priceless insight into the lives of people or individuals of that period. Regular folks, presidents, etc.

From the perspective of learning and understanding, there is no better way to know a people or an individual or a period in history than to read the personal writings – diaries, letters, etc. – of individuals from said period or time.

My feeling is, once you're dead, who the hell cares? You're dead! Let it go. And let the living learn from your life and life experiences.

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