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Inside the Clark Library's Immense Oscar Wilde Collection

Inside the chilly basement of the Clark Library, Rebecca Fenning Marschall scans a treasure trove of bound notes in a section that she recently re-catalogued. The Manuscripts and Archives librarian carefully thumbs through pages, pointing to scratched out and rewritten phrases. Oscar Wilde, the great wit of the Victorian age, was known for quick quips that still roll off tongues with ease. His wry lines, though, came with much much effort. "He's working on witty stuff," says Marschall. "He's not divinely inspired."

There are notebooks that Marschall likes to show the students who stop by to tour this immense collection. One dates back to Wilde's school days and is filled with hard to read squiggles on philosophy. She points to a doodle, a small drawing of pottery, in a margin. A few pages later, she explains why his notes are sometimes difficult to decipher. In this book, Wilde is going back and forth between English and Greek. The handwriting remains fluid, as though he didn't stop to process the difference between the languages. Marschall says that this probably wasn't out of the ordinary for a university student of that time, but it is interesting. Scholars appreciate going through these notes. And for the undergraduates, Marschall says, it is a chance to see that this exalted writer was once like them, adding tiny drawings to pages of notes.

William Andrews Clark Memorial Library | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
William Andrews Clark Memorial Library | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
Chapter 3 of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
Chapter 3 of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

More than a century ago, Wilde's words brought him a certain level of stardom. He was a hit playwright with enough charm and style to move through fashionable society. Scandal, in the form of a then-illegal affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, led to his demise. Wilde did time for the crime of loving another man.

Later, the writer headed to Paris, where he died in 1900 at 46. In recent times, Wilde has emerged as both a literary hero and icon of LGBT rights. His work has influenced subsequent generations of wordsmiths. One of his most famous fans is the British singer Morrissey, whose praise may have inspired teens of the 1980s and '90s to pick up a copy of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Wilde's choice quotes come up on Internet memes so frequently that, sometimes, his name is simply added to words that could never have come from his pen. He has turned up as a character in the comic book version of "Doctor Who" and was made into an action figure. Perhaps Wilde is more famous now than he was in life, as known for his work as he is for the persona he developed. "Wilde is a guy who didn't like to show that he worked hard," says Marschall. However, these archives tell another story.

Oscar Wilde | Source: Wikipedia Commons
Oscar Wilde | Source: Wikipedia Commons

The keys to understanding Oscar Wilde are at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. Operated by UCLA, there are rows of archives here dedicated not just to Wilde, but to his "circle." Marschall explains that this is a term the library uses to encompass a fairly large group of people. Aubrey Beardsley, who provided illustrations for Wilde's play "Salomé," is in here. So is Max Beerbohm, the caricature artist and writer who depicted Wilde in his book "Rossetti and His Circle." William Butler Yeats, a contemporary who, like Wilde, hailed from Ireland, is represented. The collection is immense. Marschall says that it might not be the biggest archive of its kind in the world, but it could be. Seven-and-a-half rows of shelving are dedicated to various editions of Wilde's novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray." That's not including a script from the film adaptation or the manuscript of the book's third chapter. (As Marschall explains, "Dorian Gray" was originally serialized in a magazine, so chapters are spread far and wide.) There are editions that span decades and version that appear in a variety of languages. Not long ago, a student stopped by to research the various book covers for a thesis. These books are put to good use.

"It makes us a destination," Marschall says of the collection. It's an unexpected destination at that. While Wilde did travel through the United States, he didn't make it to Los Angeles. His connection to the city came years after the author's death, when a local philanthropist began collecting these works.

William Andrews Clark, Jr. was the son of a copper king and Senator. Originally from Montana, he moved to Los Angeles around a century ago and is best known as the founder of the L.A. Philharmonic. He was also a noted book collector. Clark was loaded, but, as Marschall stresses, he didn't have the bucks that fellow collector Henry Huntington had. To make his own collection stand out, Clark focused on specific authors. One was John Dryden, the English poet, and the other was Wilde.

"Ravenna," a poem by Oscar Wilde with a cover embroidered by Wilde's wife, Constance. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
"Ravenna," a poem by Oscar Wilde with a cover embroidered by Wilde's wife, Constance. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

"We don't know really why he picked the authors that he picked," says Marschall. She adds that, while Clark was married (and widowed) twice, he dated men later in life. In fact, the face of a man painted inside the library's entryway is based on that of his boyfriend. Marschall can't say for certain if Clark's own same-sex relationship was the inspiration for his collecting interests. What is known is that Clark was meticulous in his collecting habits. Some of the pieces came from John B. Stetson, Jr., son of the inventor of the cowboy hat. Others were acquired at a large sale in 1928. While the books were pricy, they weren't quite as expensive as they are now. Part of that, Marschall says, is just due to the passage of time, much as how prices rise for artists. Still, she notes, attitudes towards Wilde were different in the 1920s. "At that time, there were people collecting Wilde," she says, "but there was still this taint of scandal around him."

Things have changed over the decades. "I think that any scandal surrounding Wilde is not really something that we think of as scandalous or shameful anymore," says Marschall. Plus, she adds, gay rights and academic disciplines that focus on LGBT lives and history may have helped introduce Wilde to new generations of readers.

Clark was born in 1877 so, while he was quite a bit younger than Wilde, their lives chronologically overlap. Moreover, some of Wilde's peers were still around when Clark was collecting. This includes Lord Alfred Douglas, himself a poet. Clark corresponded with Douglas, so some of the collection may have come directly from Wilde's former lover.

Marschall indicates that Clark wasn't just a rich guy buying for no other reason than the thrill of the purchase. "He was really knowledgable about what they were and went out to acquire things on purpose," she says. Clark even published a multi-volume bibliography based on his acquisitions.

Clark's grand gift to UCLA is situated closer to the university's cross-town rival. His old mansion off Adams Blvds is long gone -- it's a parking lot now -- but the library on those grounds remains. UCLA continues to beef up the collection. Some of the pieces here have only been in their possession for a short period of time. That notebook from Wilde's days at Oxford was acquired in 2004. They started out with a great collection, but it has only grown more comprehensive since then. One of the points of interest is the breadth of forgeries they have on hand. There are multiple copies of "For Love of the King," a play that was published under Wilde's name long after his death. Wilde didn't write it and the controversy over authorship ultimately led to a libel suit. The Clark has a dossier including information on the subsequent court case as well. There is also a fake draft of "The Importance of Being Earnest" as well as other forged papers. Marschall points out how similar the handwriting is to Wilde's own markings. The telltale signs are often watermarks showing that works were written on paper made after Wilde died. Another clue is the ink. A lot of these papers are written in purple ink. The problem is that Wilde himself never used that color.

"For Love of the King" was attributed to Wilde upon posthumous publication, but he didn't write it. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian
"For Love of the King" was attributed to Wilde upon posthumous publication, but he didn't write it. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

Inside his own legitimate notebooks and on typed manuscripts edited in his own writing, we see an Oscar Wilde working diligently to create the stories, and, ultimately, the personal image that has persisted through to the present day. Maybe that's why Wilde is so popular, his brand -- to use the popular word of today -- was carefully executed. Marschall thinks that, for this reason, Wilde might have been at home in the 21st century. "He would be the King of Twitter," she says. "He would probably be really into social media in general because you can curate this version of yourself and that's really what he was into."

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