No trains ran to Silver City, Idaho, on the rugged edge of what was, in 1882, agreed to be the United States of America. When our stagecoach broke an axle crossing the mountains, the driver saddled two spare horses, one for Oscar, one for me, and like true men of the west, we rode towards Silver City, breaths puffing in the chilly, argent dawn. Too big for his palomino, Oscar’s legs dangled, not clad in his famous velvet knickerbockers but knee-high boots — he could be practical, if driven to it. Perhaps it was not quite cold enough to warrant the truly enormous beaver-fur coat, but of all Oscar’s possessions, that coat was most beloved, having accompanied him from New York to San Francisco, through deserts, mountains, and Mormon country. Now, we were headed back east towards Chicago: Oscar Wilde, then twenty-nine years old and nothing if not robust, and myself, Claude Sarony, his squat, portly, mustachioed photographer of the same age.
Oscar and I had met several months earlier in the Manhattan studio of my uncle, Napoleon Sarony, who’d sent the eccentric Irishman off on his celebrated North American lecture tour with no less than twenty-seven promotional portraits: lounging dreamily upon a divan, leaned against a swirl of Morris wallpaper, draped in a half-cape and broad hat like a Byronic hero. As a lowly assistant, it had been my task to help Oscar in and out of the procession of costumes, to angle the hat so it shaded one powder blue eye. Under such intimate circumstances, through snippets of conversation between exposures, I’d divulged to him my aspirations in the photographic arts, aspirations which my uncle little understood. For the lucrative business of studio portraiture did not interest me, with its cardboard backdrops and stiff, lifeless poses; what I dreamed of was something that, in those days, was only just becoming possible: the true, clear capture of a singular instant in time — life, breath, movement, caught in arrest. Oscar, ever the vanguardist, was intrigued.
Four months later, there we were, riding unarmed through the God-forsaken wilderness. At every distant snap of a twig, I snatched at my flashgun, though it was loaded with nothing deadlier than magnesium powder. Oscar, inhaling insatiably of the tinsel air, only scanned about the brush in search of wildflowers. Back in New York and London, the papers liked to claim he never went anywhere without a sunflower or a lily in his hand, but that was a lie; neither sunflowers nor lilies grew in those parts. After an hour or so on the narrow, craggy trail, Oscar dismounted and waded into a patch of towering foxgloves while I kept a nervous watch, knowing from prior experience that he would take his time about it: he had to choose the most beautiful specimen.
Eventually, Oscar cut a sprig close to the root with a pocketknife, then straightened-up and spun the stem several times in his long fingers, smiling secretly as the purple bells whirled.
“Be careful,” I said, to hurry him along. “Those are poisonous.”
“Yes,” Oscar replied. “Like all beautiful things.”
I rolled my eyes, but not unfondly. After crossing a continent together, packed into trains and steamships and stagecoaches, racking up dozens of glass-plate negatives and listening scores of times to his theories on Art and Beauty, Oscar’s famous wit had ceased to dazzle me. Now, it was his very banality I found so delightful: his changeable moods, his childish need to be fussed-over, his habit of quoting his own best quips. Every time he betrayed himself as human and unexceptional, I felt as if I’d been handed a jewel.
Oscar then mounted his horse and we descended the slope through wind-bent pines, overwatched by the Rockies’ jagged snow-caps. Below lay Silver City, no city at all, but a mining camp of some four-hundred souls, all men; the nearest women were a full day’s ride away, in Coeur d’Alene. Weeks earlier, Oscar had sent a telegram up from San Francisco to the camp’s directors, whomever they may be, with a gracious offer to extend his tour into the Rockies, at a reduced fee: “Lectures in Decorative Arts & the House Beautiful.” Days later, a reply from the camp’s chaplain finally reached us in Nebraska: PLEASED TO HAVE U [STOP] MEN IN NEED OF ENTERTAINMENT [STOP] RECKON ART NEVER DID NO HARM [STOP].
The valley stood almost entirely denuded of trees. As we walked our horses up the only street, I thought Silver City abandoned but for a few solemn chickens and pigs. Low, flat wooden barracks stood to either side of us, and up ahead an ample, wedge-shaped canteen, which also served as chapel and post office. Above, on the scrubby hillside, clapboard headframes loomed over each of the camp’s four mineshafts: bizarre, Boschian structures that whirred and clanked with activity, all of which ground to a halt as soon as we were spotted.
Cries of “Mister Wilde’s here!” echoed off the hills. Top-hatted bosses blew their whistles, summoning ranks of squinting men and boys up from the abyss, their faces so starved for sunlight that they achieved something verging on fluorescence. The youngest boys raced down and trotted alongside Oscar’s horse, clapping their hands, pointing out the buttons on his fur coat and remarking how they’d not pulled so much tinsel up from below in five months’ worth of toil. Oscar hallooed them all graciously, waving his huge hat, heeling his horse left and right in a kind of salutary dance. No one had expected him to be so tall.
Oscar dismounted and called out, “Gather ’round! Please do gather ’round!” The men eyed him suspiciously, keeping their distance. Undeterred, he brandished high his sprig of foxgloves and declared, “Digitalis purpurea: nature’s own churchbells, that ring the death knell of any who consume them. Who among you has stopped to examine this weed, so common to these rugged mountains? Look within and you shall notice leopard-spots of gold and umber, ivory spandrels tipped with pearls of nectar. These purple blooms were where Shakespeare’s fairies made their beds…”
It was as if a messenger had rushed in with urgent news, delivered in a language none could quite understand. The miners could not have stopped him if they’d wanted to. Against their collective will, it seemed, they crowded in to examine with care a common flower as if it were some exotic bird of paradise.
When he’d said all there was to say about foxgloves, and then twenty percent more, Oscar handed the sprig to a boy, sixteen or so, with lips that burned very red against the pallor of his face. “Do pass it along to your comrades,” Oscar said, bowing slightly.
He then requested a tour of the facilities, addressing all present. The bosses and chaplain stepped forward to accompany him, but Oscar spoke over them: “Who here has dug deepest?” he asked of the crowd. “Who has chiseled his way closest to the Earth’s very heart?” A competition began amongst the men. Hulking fellows, their denim overalls stretched almost to splitting over ropes of muscle, squabbled for the Irishman’s favor. Oscar allowed each champion an opportunity to make his case, but when all was said and done, stepped forth to declare, “Why, Hades is deep enough that more than one Virgil may be my guide!” Reunited then in purpose, the miners clamored to lead him to the nearest of the four shafts, their bosses hanging back behind the surge, pouting.
As they climbed the hill, I trundled after in my checkered trousers, sweating as I rushed my tripod from place-to-place, having no sooner changed out the plate before I had to pick it all up and move again. But even in the hubbub, I managed to capture several images which I remember in every detail, though years have passed since last I saw them:
—Oscar in the silver sunlight, looming above a blur of faces like a Spanish Madonna on Lady Day
—Oscar atop the mineshaft, one foot in a bucket as if about to let himself be lowered down, the men around him looking bemused
—Oscar and a crowd of dirty, hairy-faced men posed shoulder-to-shoulder like a football team inside a tunnel of rock, all except himself looking dazed by the burst of flash-powder.
Before the smoke of my flashgun had entirely cleared the tunnel, Oscar placed himself at the furthest depth of the mine as if it were his pulpit. At least a hundred men sat on the ground before him, their heads crowding all the way back to distant daylight like skulls bobbing in Acheron. When encouraged to ask him anything, several hands went up. “’The fuck you doing way out here?” a youth called out, to the echoing amusement of his elders.
Oscar smiled whitely, his large hands open in the lantern-lit gloom. “Excellent question! Like many fellows of useless opinions and too much learning, I make a living out of speaking my mind before the public — rather too frequently some would argue, especially in my adopted country, a land of small borders and even smaller imaginations. So, I have come to America, the last great wilderness of this Earth, in order to shake the hands of men whom silly creatures such as myself would otherwise never meet, to hear of their lives and tell them a little of my own — but mostly, to speak to them of Beauty, the most necessary of useless things.”
More hands shot up. A one-eyed man squinted doubtfully: “’The hell you mean, ‘Beauty?’”
“He looks like a pimp, all right,” another cried, to raucous guffaw. “Where’re you hiding them girlies at, mickey?”
Oscar bowed his head, unoffended. “Alas, I come unencumbered by the fairer sex, except with fond recollections of my own loving wife, worn here, about my heart.” He stooped over at the reminder of this heavy burden in a way that won him approving laughter. Of all the men in that space, I alone knew that he was still a bachelor.
Oscar then spoke at length of Renaissance silversmiths and Donatello’s “David,” Shakespeare and Dante, Rossetti and Keats, Ruskin and Morris and Walter Pater. Often, he paused to answer questions, or to explain the meanings of obscure words, or to translate Greek phrases. He moved a lantern over the pickaxe-scarred walls, catching a vein of silver marbling the reddish rock. The sight seemed to strike him deeply.
“Do you know,” he said, “people in London will pay hundreds of pounds to paper their walls in designs not half so beautiful as this?”
Silently, the dozens of eyes followed his lamplight as it pushed shadow and shade aside. Bright streams floated in the dark like tresses of hair in water, filaments of purest light.
“Where will you show me next?” Oscar said, clapping his hands together.
The chaplain jumped forward to suggest that perhaps it was time to repair to the canteen, “the most natural place to hold a lecture,” in his view.
Oscar smirked. “One does presume much to be the only natural way, till one sees the unnatural way prove so effective.”
The way he said it prompted chortles in the men and a blush of embarrassment from the chaplain, who looked as if a terrible understanding was dawning upon him.
Oscar went on: “Priests and potentates speak from on high. I prefer the depths: ‘deeper than ever did plummet sound!’”
As he made his exit, I fired my flashgun again, provoking another round of coughs:
— a pale boy with very red lips leading Oscar Wilde by the hand, through blackness lined in spectral faces, towards sunlight. In the boy’s other hand: a sprig of foxgloves.
That image haunts me still.
Of course, not all our hosts understood, nor approved, of this peculiar stranger’s coming. The bosses clearly found Oscar’s lack of interest in their existence perplexing and moreover rude, and the men and boys who kept closest to the bosses (in hope of favor, I suppose, or, for the most deluded, of one day becoming bosses themselves) likewise displayed a growing distrust. As we shuffled from one mineshaft to another, I overheard them muttering amongst themselves: Who was he to prance in there, mooning about fuckin’ wallpaper? Who the hell did he think he was, flinging goddamn flowers around like a fuckin’ prince? They didn’t like to see the others trail after him like little ducklings, begging for another line of Shakespeare, another story of London high society; it unnerved them that the men wanted to have plays and paintings and sculptures described to them, as if any of that should matter, down in the dark.
After a morning spent repeating versions of his lecture for the disparate groups of men, Oscar and I repaired to the canteen for lunch, along with the rest of the crew. But when we arrived, bowls-in-hand, before the great black cauldron, the cook crossed his arms and gruffly informed Oscar he could go catch flies. “And yer gunzel too,” he added, eyeing me with menace. From near the doors, the bosses, watching us, elbowed each other and sniggered.
Oscar took it in stride. “Oh, dear me no, no trouble at all. We still have some rather delicious biscuits and venison jerky from our previous hosts in Coeur d’Alene.”
Neither of those items could rightly be described in any way as “delicious,” barely as “edible,” in fact, but this did not dishearten him. To the visible dismay of his detractors, Oscar proceeded to sit elbow-to-elbow with the miners at one of the several long trestle-tables, removing his packet of biscuits from the depths of that massive coat. Yet the men swarmed him so with questions that he barely managed to eat a crumb.
What was New York like, they wanted to know. What was Boston like? What was Kansas City like? Did he know whether there had been a Mary O’So-and-So of Such-and-Such on the boat to New York? Had he ever heard a cello played? Was the ocean full of snakes?
Tirelessly, graciously, Oscar answered every inquiry, at length whenever the opportunity arose. All the while I angled about, standing on benches in attempt to set up the best view, till Oscar raised a hand and said, “To the gilded frame of remembrance, some moments must be surrendered.”
Before the lunch hour was over, one of the older miners, a bald, clean-shaven bullyboy with a solid black tooth at the front, sat blubbering by Oscar’s side. “I have me the awfullest thoughts,” he said. “I done so many awful things already, and I don’t know why. I sin, I covet, Lord knows. I look at some swell over there, and I think, ‘Why I ain’t got what he got?’ and I think it’s so unfair, I go crazy wanting it, wanting to take it…”
Oscar listened, nodding gently, till the miner could no longer continue. He then laid one of his big white hands on the man’s dusty shoulder, and spoke about the darker side of Beauty, “that which is not intrinsic to the thing itself,” he said, “but forged like a blade in the fires of our own hearts, that lodges itself there, and aches, and festers. I speak, of course, of Envy.”
He glanced up then: the chaplain was hovering just behind me, buzzard-like.
“Envy overcomes us most when least we see the thing we admire,” Oscar went on. “It is our task, then, to see, and see without shame. There are times when, like Semele in the lap of Jupiter, Beauty burns us to the very core, and so, like beasts, we attack the thing that wounds us. But we must temper ourselves to its burning, lest we destroy that which is most precious to the intellect, and the soul.” Tenderly, he clapped the weeping man on the back. “Never again, my friend, never again.”
The weeping man sucked up a thin thread of snot, and nodded gratefully.
To my astonishment, murmurs spread amongst the men gathered closest: “Never again.” “Never again, Joe.” “Never again, Bill.” “Never again, Charlie.” As if a vial of medicine were passed from lips to lips.
The chaplain slunk away.
After lunch, the men returned to work. To the bemusement of some, the incredulity of others, and the chagrin of a few, Oscar exchanged his fur coat for a denim jacket and went down with them. He took up a spare pickaxe, went to the head of the tunnel and began swinging away at the rock, claiming to have learned a thing or two from the miners down in Colorado. This awakened some bitter rivalry in the men of Silver City, who chided Oscar to correct his stance and his swing, blaming his lack of expertise on their southerly counterparts. Soon, they were patiently showing him how to extract the ore, how to load up the buckets, when to send the bucket back up. Oscar insisted on performing every task, tucking his long hair into his hat to keep the sweat out of his eyes.
—Oscar cradling the pickaxe across his chest, the men around him all gap-toothed grins and chortles
—Oscar spotlighted at the bottom of the mineshaft, attaching a bucketful of ore to the rope
—Oscar proudly holding an egg-sized lump of raw silver in both hands, a smudge of dirt across the bridge of his long nose.
At supper, the day’s work being done, the miners received their more generous ration of beer. The night therefore took on a rowdier tone, as they crowded in around Oscar at the long table. Now they wanted to hear about the ladies of the world beyond Silver City, the cosmopolitan girls especially, with their parasols and sausage curls and spotless white gowns. Oscar launched into an exhaustive description of Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth: her wild hair illuminated in the eerie gaslight, her naked silhouette just visible through a shift of silk, her bare feet so small and white upon the boards. An almost hallowed silence lasted till he’d wrung both memory and imagination dry.
Some men demanded he tell them in what city the best whorehouses could be found. For a moment or two it seemed he might demur, but then the answer came:
“Honestly, my good fellows — Paris has such fame in this regard for a reason!”
The men laughed and toasted him and the whores of Paris, who, Oscar said, rinsed their bodies head-to-foot in rosewater, like the concubines of the great Sultans, and stained their lips red with the blood of Egyptian beetles. He’d taken a few swigs of Irish whiskey from his hipflask by then and was slipping into that great fault of his native people: lying his face off. Some of the men knew he was full of it but enjoyed his tales anyway. Others thought he was making fun of them.
“You swing an axe like a fairy!” someone shouted.
When Oscar seemed deaf to this remark, they shouted it again.
“And you, sir,” Oscar replied, “bleat like an ass with a thumb of ginger in his bung, but you don’t hear me making a fuss about it.”
The men whooped and whistled. But a few were wounded and demanded appeasement. In all the noise, someone challenged Oscar to an arm-wrestling contest, though without offering himself as challenger. The rest took up the idea and ran with it. I overheard the bosses arguing: one wanted to stop the contest, fearing to lose a good picker to injury. But the others scoffed. “Let somebody rip the nancy-boy’s arm off.”
To delighted applause, Oscar stripped to his pristine shirtsleeves, folded his jacket neatly over the bench beside him, and performatively cracked his knuckles. His chosen opponent emerged from the crowd, one of the larger specimens on hand, a thick-necked, red-bearded Ulsterman, who muttered something under his breath about “Dublin queers” as he took Oscar’s fist in his own.
“But have you seen what a Dublin queer can do with his arm?” Oscar parried. Breathless cheers followed, provoked if by nothing else than sheer shock.
Regardless of his size, or his stamina as proven previously in the mines, or his bravado, no one in that room expected the Dublin queer to hold his own, not even me. So, it was much to the astonishment of all that as the match began Oscar’s arm barely wavered. Men and boys crammed close, chanting and pounding the table. Even I whooped and whistled like a dockworker at a cockfight. As the seconds wore on, the Ulsterman looked perplexed, Oscar increasingly fagged but defiant, his fingertips white against the cup of the other’s dirty paw, a fine vein standing out in his forehead. Nearly a full minute, he held out, which felt simultaneously like an instant and an eternity, at last admitting defeat with a bow to his stunned and humbled opponent. Cheers shook the room.
—I took no photographs of this event. But it happened.
A bonfire was soon lit in the yard. Oscar lounged on the porch of the canteen, looking as decorous on the wooden steps as he had the divan in Uncle Leon’s studio. Tipsily, he regaled the crowd with stories out of the Metamorphoses. Specifically, the many loves and conquests of Apollo: Dafne. Coronis. Melia. He was cheery at first, no doubt still enervated from his earlier pseudo-victory. But at some point, a visible change moved over him. The smile fluttered nervously on his lips, as though he had come upon an impasse in his mind, with no options other than to turn back, or push through.
“You know, Apollo once begged Zeus to make him mortal.”
He said this so quietly that the rest fell instantly silent, leaned in close, waiting for more.
“Why?” someone asked. “Why would a god want to be mortal?”
It was the boy with the foxglove who’d spoken. Indeed, he still held the flower, slightly wilted since that morning. He spun the stem in his fingers, the same way I’d seen Oscar do on the mountain pass.
The air thrummed, as if with a low electrical current. Uncharacteristically, Oscar looked at the floor as he answered, “Well, for love of course. And grief. The grief of having killed the thing he loved most. The gods of the Greeks, you see, had all the faults and failings germane to mortals, alongside divine powers well beyond mortal comprehension. To such beings, at times, deity could be a curse. Most especially in love. In love, the gods often faltered. They craved, coveted, and conquered, but rarely loved. Hyacinthus, however, was different: Hyacinthus returned Apollo’s love. He was not frightened of it, though perhaps he ought to have been.”
The fire cracked and popped loudly. Seated up on the porch, the chaplain emitted a faint, anxious cough.
“So what happened?” someone asked.
Oscar drew in a breath, drummed his fingertips on both knees, and told the story of the unfortunate young Spartan as well as any story he’d ever told, though perhaps in plainer language, as if taking care that every word should be understood perfectly. Nothing mistaken. Nothing unsaid.
“Some say it was Zephyrus, jealous of Hyacinthus’ love, who blew Apollo’s discus off-course,” Oscar said. “Whether by accident or through an ill-favored wind, the missile glanced young Hyacinthus’ skull, with all the force of the godly hand that had thrown it. Apollo, seeing the wound, dashed forth and caught the lad in his arms even ere he fell, and held him half-upright, begging all his fellow gods, his father and stepmother, to save his beloved’s life. But when all entreaties failed, and Hyacinthus breathed his last, Apollo’s only wish was to die with him. He cried out to his father, ‘Make me mortal too, oh Lord, so we may never be parted.’ But Zeus would not grant Apollo his wish.”
Tens of pairs of eyes glittered strangely in the light. No one spoke.
“From the blood of Hyacinthus, Apollo created a flower which we call hyacinth—a flower of very sweet scent, purple-indigo, and composed of many small, trumpet-shaped blooms which grow vertically along a stem — much like your native foxglove. It is commonly found in the mountains of Palestine.” This last, it seemed, he added with a glance to the chaplain, who pushed his spectacles up on his nose, mouth turned firmly downwards.
The silence went on. The men waited, it seemed, for Oscar to make sense of what he had just shared with them, to push them one way or another over a thin, sharp wire.
Again, Oscar removed the silver flask from inside his emerald waistcoat before going on.
“I am reminded of our conversation over luncheon,” he said. “We had just touched upon the subject of desire, and yet ultimately withdrew from it, as we men are conditioned to do. I have nursed a vague disappointment in myself ever since — for I withdrew, also, into platitudes, and you fellows deserve better. Desire is a deadly thing, but we must not turn away from it, not ever. It lies at the very heart of every lesser passion, every physical need required to sustain life and health. It is the driving force behind every sin, and the engine behind every good. Each man feels it keenly, a penknife pushed through his ribs, though we train ourselves, gradually, to ignore it. Curates and physicians would advise we remove the knife, cure the wound…”
He glanced in the chaplain’s direction.
“But I am neither a curate, nor a physician. I am a poet, and I offer a poet’s cure: lean into it. Lean into the knife. Let it be the thing that kills you.”
The black-toothed miner from the canteen had started to weep again. The boy, even paler than usual, sank his gaze into the foxglove and hunched his shoulders. Around Oscar, approving grunts and groans rumbled into being, followed by mugs and cups raised, chuckles and slaps on the shoulders. Perhaps they thought he was talking about Parisian whores again.
I knew better. If nothing else, I knew it was desire that set Oscar Wilde apart — that made him unknowable — and this, to me, felt like perfect knowledge of the man, even down to the soul. I suppose such is a fallacy of portrait-makers, whatever their medium: the misbelief that our subjects belong to us.
—Oscar seated on the steps, gazing straight into my camera. Behind him, the men stand serried, headless, like bodies hanged along a gallows-beam, their white hands, a row of teeth.
The following morning, after a restless night spent on hammocks in the miners’ barracks, Oscar and I were reunited with our coach and we continued east, eventually meeting up with the C&NW Rail, in Wyoming. Not until we’d arrived in Chicago did the news reach us at our hotel, in the form of a telegram: two days after Oscar and I left Silver City, the man with the black tooth had murdered the boy with the foxglove, with a dozen stabs to the heart. No motive given. The chaplain had little else to say but, KILLER TO BE HANGED WEDNESDAY [STOP] INTO THE DEPTHS INDEED [STOP].
“Well,” I began, doubtful of my own words, “you can’t blame yourself. These things happen all the time, out west…”
Oscar stood with his elbow on the hotel bar, a neat whiskey before him, the telegram beside it. Through the window: a blue, gaslit night, a sidewalk lined in plane trees where men and women passed by arm-in-arm, like ducks in a shooting gallery. Over the months we’d spent together, I’d come to learn that Oscar was not always quick with a reply. Sometimes silence overtook him and he sank into it, writing and erasing a hundred drafts of what might be said before he’d open his mouth at last. So, I waited.
Oscar lifted the glass to his lips and sipped.
“Probably it had nothing to do with what you said,” I went on, talking myself into it now. “There must have been some bad blood in that camp since long before you got there…”
I let the silence go on as long as I could possibly bear, all the while trying to decide what it meant, whether it was panic I saw in his averted gaze, or remorse. Or indifference.
But I could not wait forever. Anyway, we had another, pressing matter to discuss: “The other thing… about my salary…”
“Never fear for that, my good friend. A full accounting awaits you in New York, with my representatives.”
I blinked. This was the first time in months that Oscar had confessed to having any plan at all to pay me. “It does? Well, that is excellent. Yes, that shall do nicely.” And yet, doubt crept in. “Because you understand, I’m here on my own dime. And for processing, my uncle will be of no help, so I’ll have to supply my own equipment, my own chemicals, my own paper. The number of plates stands somewhere in the region of fifty: fifty glass negatives, so for a decent run of prints in silver bromide, that shall come to—”
“Oh, never tire me about sums, dear Claude! Whatever you are owed, you shall be remunerated.” In all that time he had not so much as glanced at me, nor the telegram for that matter, which lay on the bar between us like a bloody glove.
I blathered, “Excellent, yes, yes,” and sipped my drink. Another silence fell, and in it my mind shuttled about like the counter in a cash-register until, inevitably, one supposes, it turned up the terrible notion that Oscar had no intention of ever paying me, nor the means to do so. Even after so long in close company, I had no idea who Oscar Wilde truly was, nor what he stood for. I’d followed a man across a continent, and in all that time my companion had grown not more familiar, but more and more strange. What was it he’d been trying to prize out of this country’s heart? What had he left behind?
“Do you know,” Oscar said, turning his glass in the candlelight, “I was very happy in Silver City. One grows weary, now and then, of the same pretentions. Now and then, one likes to acquaint oneself with new ones.”
“Oh yes. All is pretention, my friend. There is no survival without pretention.” He gave me a gently impatient look, as if to say, Have you learned nothing?
A full seven months later, after swinging as far north as Montreal and as far south as New Orleans, we landed, finally, in New York City. Oscar’s image was still all over the papers in cruel little cartoons, thick-lipped, doe-eyed and limp-wristed; or often, in lithographs plagiarized from his Sarony portraits, hawking hair-creams and toothpowder. On our last night together, Oscar and I lingered a while on the stoop of my Bowery rooming-house, making plans for a long and fruitful artistic collaboration.
“We will print a book,” he declared heatedly, a little drunk. “A limited run, I should think, of one hundred copies in silver-bromide, and thereafter a larger run, five-hundred say, in photogravure.”
All of this, naturally, would have cost Oscar a pretty fortune, one that I was all too pleased to hope for, not to mention the fame such an enterprise would bring. Our book would be the very first volume of flashlight photographs ever printed. The very first collection of photographs to capture the candid moments of a singular life; the first to explore, from every angle, the mystery behind one man’s face.
“You are an artist, Claude,” Oscar said, in parting. “Perhaps the most original artist of this generation. Ours will be no ordinary partnership — it shall be a revolution!”
Over the years to follow, I would, on numerous occasions, drink myself into a semi-murderous stupor over Oscar Wilde, who had dragged me all over the damned country and left me with nothing to show for it but three crates of glass negatives and not a spare penny to put towards developing them. The expenses I’d incurred over our North American voyage had left me destitute. Uncle Leon said it should be a lesson learned, and such was the extent of support I received from that corner. I suppose I might have sold the negatives off to the press for the usual pittance, but those precious images would have been lithographed, turned into poor shadows of themselves, the original plates unceremoniously smashed as offscouring — an act of shameless desecration, I thought, from which the “artist” in me, such as it was, recoiled.
Eventually, the need to provide for a new wife and child led me to take a job at the Edison Machine Works, wiring the lamps that would light New York. Oscar’s negatives were banished to the basement of my wooden-sided, Schenectady rowhouse, where I visited them frequently, holding the plates up to lantern light, picking at the wound.
To his credit, Oscar never forgot me. Despite my infrequent replies, he sent many letters during those years, from Paris or London or Monte Carlo or wherever the hell he was, all of which were overly friendly and anecdotal, all of which ended with a promise to send along the requested funds, as soon as they could be raised. How fondly I do think on our time as fellow travelers, he wrote, a full seven years later:
You cannot imagine how often I recall Silver City, in particular, and the moment those foxgloves passed from my hand into the hand of that poor boy — for it was poison I gave unto him, and death that found him soon after. Was it only poison, I wonder, that I gave to those men? Is poison all they remember of me?
Anyway, at the suggestion of Mr. A.C. Doyle, I have begun work on a serialized novel, of all things, which shall of course feature all the bloody antics typical of that genre — yes, especially murder—
I read no further. In my basement, I pulled out the negatives: his face inverted, stars on the black wells of his eyes, an eerie whiteness radiating through black teeth. The pale boy, an ebony ghost with gray lips, holding black flowers, walking into shadow.
All those years, I had never allowed the idea of the book Oscar and I might have made together to die. It weighed upon my back like the body of a man, a man of far greater mass, power, and importance than what I had become: a jealous, self-pitying little factory worker with a secret in the cellar. The only way to relieve a secret is to infect others with it, which I suppose is all that any artist has ever sought to do: to sting others with the same mystery that has stung him. Oscar would have called that mystery “Desire,” I suppose, but in my case, it had soured to something far darker: the thing that kills what it can’t have.
That night, in a booze-induced stupor, I lugged all of Oscar’s old negatives out to the garden. I waited for a train to approach on the nearby tracks, then slid the negatives out of their crates, one-by one, and smashed them to pieces with a ballpeen hammer. I was still at it even after the train had roared past, pounding the plates to shards and the shards to dust.
Afterwards, I stuffed every letter Oscar had ever sent into a fire bucket and watched them burn.
In the spring of 1900, nearly twenty years after Oscar Wilde’s North American tour had ended, I journeyed to Paris to attend my mother’s funeral. Passage being so expensive, I could only come alone, leaving my wife and four children back in New York. I had no recollections of Paris, a city I’d left for Montreal as a small boy. The language, I barely spoke, the customs, in particular mealtimes, baffled me, the squalor and misery I encountered shocked me. Paris was not exactly hell, but a kind of purgatory; no destination at all, but an intermediary nothingness.
It was on a maudlin ramble about the 6th arondissement that I happened upon a dingey café of the sort frequented by rough types and prostitutes. One solitary, hulking figure haunted the terrace, perched upon a spindly chair and reading a newspaper, or staring at it anyway.
I’d only ever thought of him with a lump in my stomach the past five years. 1895 had been a year of incessant news from London of his downfall: two lengthy, humiliating trials for a crime no one would speak of except obliquely. One might have thought I would have rejoiced to hear of my former friend’s sufferings, but quite the contrary: alone, I’d secretly grieved for him, and had even given up the drink at last, as penance for all the ill I’d wished upon him over those many years. After all, he was never so much an enemy to me as I had been to myself.
Oscar had been given the maximum sentence: two years’ hard labor. Two years, also, of enforced silence and solitude. The hard labor, I’d known he might survive. The silence, I’d thought, would have killed him.
“Do you remember me?” I asked. Oscar looked afraid, as big as he was, having taken on a good deal of weight in addition to his height. His face betrayed nothing but this fear, the look of one accustomed to encountering nothing by chance except peril. His hair was a little thinner, but not nearly so white as mine was grey. His eyes were still the same soft, powder blue.
“America,” I said, pointing to my own chest as if I were the continent personified. “I was your photographer.” And then, even though I had forgiven him in my heart years before, I added, “You never paid me,” and nearly let out a sob.
The fear fled from Oscar’s face. For a moment, I was unsure whether he too might grow tearful. At last, he only moved his lips as if wanting to smile, but ashamed to do so.
I asked if I might sit, and he nodded. In silence we remained a while, our eyes not knowing where to settle. Politely, he asked my business in Paris. He listened as if the subject of maternal death struck a painful chord, then offered sincere condolences, to which I said nothing of the fact that I’d last seen my mother at the age of four. I dared not ask similar questions of Oscar, knowing well enough what exile looks like. He had two sons, I recalled. I wondered if they remembered their father no better than I remembered my mother.
“Do you still have them?” he asked. “The pictures?”
Guilt swept over me. In a panic, I considered lying. But it was too late for that, I could tell he’d already seen that hateful night in my eyes, the frenzy of hammer-strokes that had shattered his face, over and over again. I hung my head, which was answer enough.
“Pity,” Oscar said. “I do wish I might have seen them.”
“I wish the same,” I sighed, “and many others with you.” I might have felt a twinge of unresolved anger but pushed it aside. “Doesn’t matter now anyway. They’d only be worth anything to you and me.” This was the truth, sadly. Ever since Oscar had left prison, the world wanted nothing to do with him.
Oscar smiled behind his hand. “I have been thinking, lately. Now that I am not writing, I am thinking a great deal more, more than ever perhaps. And… I wonder, might I not have been of more use to the world, and myself, had I taken up a pickaxe instead of a pen?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I believe I came up with some awful pap such as, “You would not have been yourself, then. You would have been someone else.”
Oscar laughed bitterly, exposing his once-white teeth. They were solid black. “Sometimes,” he said, “I find myself on my knees, scrubbing the floor of my hotel room with the sole of my shoe. I’ll get up in darkness to make my bed, and then wait for a guard to come and inspect it. Sometimes, I imagine every face I see sheathed in a black mask, a slit for the eyes. There are days when I miss the anonymity of those masks, I even miss the closeness, the foulness of my own breath. Sometimes, I hear… I’ll hear a door, or a shutter slam open, and I’ll see a body, twisting, in midair…” Briefly, he looked as if he might be sick, but composed himself and went on: “I don’t know who I was when you knew me. I try, I try to remember him. But I can’t recall how it felt to be that man…”
“I remember,” I blurted out, surprising myself. “The pictures, I mean. Every single one. I remember you in the theatre in Salt Lake, with the Mormon pastor and all his wives in their identical dresses, lined up to shake your hand.”
Oscar laughed again, warmly this time.
I went on: “I remember you standing on frozen Lake Michigan in your beaver coat, with your arms out. And bowing to the Chinese in San Francisco, and drinking with the miners in Leadville… I remember you in Silver City, down in the mine, that boy leading you by the hand towards the light…”
“It was him, wasn’t it?” Oscar said. “The boy I killed.”
I stammered. “You didn’t kill him, Oscar.”
“There are so many ways to kill someone,” Oscar said, looking towards the end of the street, where the silver Seine glittered blindingly between the brick buildings. “It is not always by the hand.”
We passed some time together, a half hour at least, talking of my family and Oscar’s intentions of converting to Catholicism, “because for the Catholics, the past can always be rewritten.” Eventually, our silences lengthened. Oscar seemed to slip further away. Once it was clear he had nothing left to give, I stood and shook his hand, and made an embarrassed offer to pay for the coffee, to which Oscar declared there was no need, he had credit to spare.
After I had said farewell once already, Oscar lurched hugely to his feet and withdrew a card from his pocket. “If you ever find yourself in Paris again. Or care to write.”
MR. SEBASTIAN MELMOTH, it said. HÔTEL D’ALSACE.
To my look of confusion he mumbled, as if in apology: “That is the name now.”
—Oscar Wilde — a great scooped-out shadow, like a spoon with limbs, dressed in tatty black gabardine — standing on a grubby terrace with the sunlight in his eyes, handing out a calling card with another man’s name on it.
That image, I have tried to forget.
Click here to read Hesse Phillips's compositional note.
Image: Family Heirloom Creator by Lewis Minor, licensed under CC 2.0.
Despite having lived a very public life, and having produced a trove of personal writing, Oscar Wilde remains an enigmatic figure, brimming with contradictions. Over the course of his relatively short career, the cultivation of various personas became Wilde’s longest artistic project, from the velvet-breeched aesthete captured in Napoleon Sarony’s portrait studio to the shadowy Sebastian Melmoth, his alias in exile, named after Saint Sebastian and a fictional character, “Melmoth the Wanderer.” Often, the masks Wilde wore just toed the line of subversion, forever testing the boundaries of Victorian masculinity. But as a gay man attempting to live in the spotlight during a time of intense criminalization, Wilde’s masks were also a matter of survival.
Sebastian Melmoth in Silver City is loosely based on Wilde’s real visit to a silver mining town in Colorado. Claude Sarony, on the other hand, is my invention. I play fast and loose with the history of photography in this story, as flash photography was still several years away in 1882. But it was important for me to place Wilde under the watchful gaze of a keen documentarian, someone hunting for glimpses of the truth behind the mask. As always, the search for truth is not without its dangers. In Wilde’s words, “Those who go beneath the surface do so at their own peril.”
- Sebastian Melmoth in Silver City - March 31, 2023
loved this– I was completely drawn into the journey and enchanted by Oscar with the rest of ’em…
This is so good, Hesse, in the quality of the details, both in terms of place and character. Congratulations!