FOR an apparently unfinished and often sloppily written (though assiduously researched) piece of work, Oscar Wilde’s 1878–79 essay on ‘Historical Criticism’, has recently provoked a great deal of scholarly labour. It first appeared in print in a tidied up and heavily edited form in Robert Ross’s Collected Works of Oscar Wilde (1908), where it went under its editor’s title, ‘The Rise of Historical Criticism’. It was composed as a potential entry for the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize, although almost certainly unsubmitted in the end (unless Wilde was deliberately trying to provoke the judges by asking them to read such an untidy text). ‘Historical Criticism’ belongs with the many notebooks (some extant, others missing or lost) Wilde kept while an undergraduate, and with any work which formed the basis of his assessment in Oxford and his achievement of a double first. The essay is, in other words, essentially the work of a university student. It is, to say the least, unusual that such an essay would either attract or warrant the scholarly attention that has been lavished upon it in the last ten years. Oxford University Press is currently publishing authoritative editions of Wilde’s complete works under the general editorship of Ian Small, a project which, at the time of writing, comprises eight volumes, with many more on the way. Volume IV, edited by Josephine M. Guy, dedicated to ‘Criticism’, which brought together Intentions, The Soul of Man, and Historical Criticism, appeared in 2007. Guy had undertaken a monumental task in preparing this volume, and with ‘Historical Criticism’ had returned to the ‘original’ manuscript which she bluntly described as ‘messy’, containing ‘numerous spelling and grammatical errors, an idiosyncratic (and often confusing) method of punctuation, a haphazard means of citation, as well as a number of marginal glosses the relevance of which to the main text is not always obvious. There are also a couple of places where blank spaces have been left mid-sentence’ (xxii). Guy’s edition carefully corrected editorial changes made by Ross and provided a detailed ‘Introduction’, ‘Note on the Texts and the Textual Condition’, and a generous commentary on the essay itself. For the serious student of Wilde, all work with ‘Historical Criticism’ has to start with Guy’s impressive scholarship. Then, in a series of extraordinarily detailed responses to Guy’s edition, Horst Schroeder devoted a substantial proportion of his original review of the volume in The Wildean, 34 (January 2009), to a critique and a correction, and followed this up with two long review articles, in The Wildean, 42 (January 2013) and 43 (July 2013), providing even more crucial information about the text, effectively annotating Guy’s annotations of Wilde. And now along comes Philip E. Smith II’s wonderful edition of the holograph notebook which formed the basis for the original essay, and which must be added to any proper consideration of this near fugitive piece of writing. This edition of the notebook has been long in the preparation, and in his Acknowledgements, Smith indicates that planning began in 2003, with detailed work getting underway in 2007. That such time and effort has been devoted to a notebook used to write what has traditionally been regarded as minor Wilde, and that the result has been published by a major university press, tells us a number of important things. One relates to Wilde’s current standing in the academy. In the space of a century he has gone from being treated as a second rate dilettante to one of the major literary figures of the nineteenth century, where even an essay like ‘Historical Criticism’, which Schroeder calls an ‘abortive’ text by which ‘Wilde never wanted to be judged’ (‘Historical Criticism Revisited’, The Wildean, 42 (January 2013), 62), is (correctly) considered worthy of painstaking scholarly work. It also tells us that Wilde is now considered a thinker as well as a writer of substance, and that the Intellectual Wilde may now be of far more importance than (to take obvious examples from earlier periods of Wilde Studies), the ‘Irish Wilde’, or the ‘Queer Wilde’, versions of the author which generated a small library of criticism in the 1980s and 1990s. The notebook is an incomplete record of the research Wilde conducted while preparing ‘Historical Criticism’, and is evidence of his extensive reading in, knowledge of, and ability to dialogue and debate with a range of ancient and modern historians and philosophers. Placing this publication alongside Wilde’s other undergraduate notebooks and the ‘Historical Criticism’ essay itself certainly undermines claims that Wilde was a shallow thinker capable of little in the way of sustained thought beyond name-dropping and fashionable reference. Moreover, Smith does not think that ‘Historical Criticism’ is actually all that minor a Wilde text, and he has long made the case that the essay, along with the undergraduate notebooks, present a portrait of a ‘mind in the making’, to cite the subtitle to his and Michael Helfand’s edition of the Oxford Notebooks. One need not fully subscribe to all the conclusions reached by Smith about what kind of a mind these texts indicate being formed in order to appreciate the substantial scholarly achievement represented here. The community of Wilde scholars owes an enormous debt of gratitude to Philip Smith, not only for this magnificent edition, and for Oscar Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks (1989), as well as the numerous articles and reviews he has contributed over the years, but for the generosity with which Smith has shared his vast knowledge of Wilde’s intellectual growth and reading, and the collegial spirit in which he conducts his work, and which is evident in abundance here. There is a problem for the poor Wilde scholar, of course. From now on, when working with ‘Historical Criticism’, she will have to keep open in front of her at least five different sources for constant cross-referencing: Guy’s authoritative edition and commentary, Schroeder’s three corrective articles, and now Smith’s edition of the Notebook, making their desks as messy as Wilde’s essay. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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