Tara Penry’s article “Bret Harte’s Oscar Wilde Tale” appears in the fall 2018 issue of the journal American Literary Realism, published by the University of Illinois Press.
In the spring of 1895, when Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was tried and convicted in London of “indecent” sexual acts, causing public conceptions of male homosexuality to crystallize around his name and style, Bret Harte was an international literary celebrity from the American West then living in London. Without commenting overtly on the trials in public or private, Harte took a bold position veiled in the genre of fiction, defending Wilde and chastizing his accusers in a story published early in 1896.
Penry traces the evidence linking Harte’s story to the Wilde trials and recovers the American writer’s lost interpretation of the very public proceedings. While historians have focused on Wilde’s significance in the history of sexuality, Harte saw the trials as a modern, urban instance of a western American lynching.
Unlike English law in 1895, Harte’s story insisted on a right of sexual privacy and cast doubt on the justice of any deliberation that could not be softened and humanized by the humor of a Bret Harte or an Oscar Wilde.