Bret Harte’s Oscar Wilde Tale

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2018


In April and May 1895, the famous American author of magazine stories Bret Harte was living in England and working on a play while Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde appeared in London newspapers as the subject of a courtroom scandal well known to history. Accused by his lover’s father of “posing as somdomite [sic],” Wilde initiated and withdrew a libel suit in April only to find himself tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison for “acts of gross indecency” by the end of May. Meanwhile, Harte worked steadily through drafts and revisions, dividing his time between the posh London address where he lived as a long-term guest and the homes of his dramatic collaborator in Birmingham and the Cotswolds. Despite his preoccupation, Harte could not have remained oblivious to the sensation playing out in the newspapers, which with few exceptions “displayed the utmost animosity against Wilde.” Harte had met Wilde in the 1880s, and each had read at least something of the other’s books. Wilde’s Albemarle Club, where the Marquess of Queensberry had left the accusatory calling card with its misspelling of “sodomite,” stood just a few doors from Harte’s Royal Thames Yacht Club. Harte is not known to have commented directly on the trials in public or private, but a tale called “Bulger’s Reputation” (1896), written within a few months of Wilde’s May conviction and published in February 1896 in London’s Strand magazine, provides the best insight we have into the American author’s response to Wilde’s legal drama. While virtually every other observer has found in Wilde “an emerging public definition of a new ‘type’ of male sexual actor: ‘the homosexual,’” Harte saw the case in terms of a subject he had satirized for thirty-five years: the dubious justice of public opinion. This was a sensitive topic for Harte in 1895, when he was hiding an impropriety of his own. In Harte’s sympathetic treatment, the trials represented not a watershed moment in the discourse of sexuality, but a sad illustration of the failure of law to secure justice, and the failure of humor to save anyone from the earnest errors of self-righteousness.

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