How a Book Killed a Poet

A Picture of Oscar Wilde
Well, it began with a book. The only novel that the poet, Oscar Wilde, ever wrote. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, when Oscar was 36 years old.

Until that time Wilde had been a renowned poet and playwright. But he was also controversial. He liked to party and indulge in vices, and make a show of his iniquities. This led critics to view him as immoral and hedonistic. And they accused him of doing the provocative things he did, all for publicity.

But after The Picture was published, a new “picture” of Oscar Wilde began to emerge. This novel contained many off-handed, subtle references to homosexual behavior. And while it did not overtly portray or promote anything homosexual, it averred to it strongly enough to raise the suspicion of critics and moralists throughout England.

Homosexual acts were very illegal in that Victorian era. They could earn a perpetrator prison time with hard labor.

Wilde remained popular with his reading audience, but even they couldn’t help but suspect he might be a dreaded homosexual, after reading his book. In fact, anyone and everyone in the know began to suspect it.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

In 1891 Wilde began hanging out with Lord Alfred Douglas, the 20-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess was a brute of a man, who had taken credit for creating the modern rules of boxing, known as the Queensberry Rules (although the actual writer of the rules was a man named John Graham Chambers). The Marquess feared that Wilde might be seducing his young son into a homosexual relationship.

He confronted Wilde several times over the next few years, and their relationship grew more and more tense. In 1894, a sort of war was declared between them, when he apprehended Wilde in a restaurant. He declared his suspicions about Wilde’s sexual orientation, and issued an ultimatum with the following words: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you!”

The ever-clever Wilde riposted: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

In a sense, it was Lord Douglas who was seducing Wilde, and not the other way around. Alfred introduced Oscar to the underground world of male prostitution. And Oscar relished in it. It felt exciting and dangerous. Just Wilde’s wild style.

A few months later, in February, 1895, the Marquess left a calling card for the poet that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” It’s actually spelled “sodomite”, but brutes aren’t well known for their writing skills.

Lord Alfred Douglas had been feuding with his father, and he wanted to hurt him bad. So he persuaded Oscar to prosecute his dad for criminal libel. After all, calling someone a sodomite was an insult. And insulting someone was against the law in England. Unless, of course, the insult was true.

Wilde’s friends cautioned against it, because they knew the insult really was true. But how do you convince the love-struck? Wilde enjoyed indulging his young lover, so he granted Douglas’ wish and went ahead and filed charges.

John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and credit usurper of boxing’s Queensberry Rules.

Soon the Queensberry Rules man found himself on the ropes and facing trial. If convicted he faced two years in prison. His only defense was to prove that what he wrote on the calling card was an accurate fact.

The Marquess of Queensberry knew how to fight. Hell, he stole the rules on fighting. And he delivered a sockdolager punch. He hired detectives to look into Oscar Wilde’s lifestyle, and they uncovered his activities in London’s gay brothels.

Two months after the calling card incident the trial began. It was a circus, with Wilde’s prosecution unraveling in the face of a mountain of evidence amassed against him. And the defense attorney cross-examined Wilde about the moral content of his works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s witty retorts won him laughs but left him looking more and more like the true guilty party.

Then the turn came for the defense to present its case. In his opening statement, the defense attorney announced that he had located several male prostitutes who were going to testify that they had sex with Wilde. Wilde sensed great danger and knew he couldn’t win, so he quickly dropped the libel charges.

But it was too late. The court ruled that the words on the Marquesses’ calling card were “true in substance and fact”. And under the law, Queensberry’s acquittal left Wilde liable for Queensberry’s legal expenses, and the cost of his detectives. It was a lot of money, and it bankrupted the poet.

But Queensberry wasn’t finished punching, even while Oscar lay still on the mat. He immediately gave Scotland Yard the evidence his detectives had uncovered on Wilde.

The next day Wilde was arrested and charged with sodomy and gross indecency. And on May 25,1895, he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

In prison he was forced to walk a treadmill, and separate oakum fibers from old navy ropes. His bed was hard, and the food was of poor nutritional quality. Within six months his health was destroyed. He managed to stagger into the prison chapel one day, where he collapsed from illness and hunger. He hit his head when he fell, and broke his eardrum.

A prison reformer visited him and had him transferred to a new jail, where his treatment might be better. But during the transfer a crowd jeered and spat at him at a train station. This was when Wilde fully realized he had become one of the most reviled men in England, now that everyone knew for sure he was homosexual. He felt devastated.

In May, 1897, after two years of torture, he was released from prison, with his health in tatters, his finances ruined, and his fame reduced to obloquy. He immediately sailed for France and never returned to England.

He was penniless from his bankruptcy. In France he wrote a poem under a nom de plume that was an instant success and earned him a little money. But it was not enough to lift him out of poverty.

For the next three years Oscar Wilde haunted the boulevards of Paris. He continued to write a little, here and there, but finally became so depressed about his fate that he quit writing altogether. He turned to alcohol, which only worsened his health and left him more deeply impoverished.

The eardrum he broke while in prison continued to bother him. A surgeon performed a mastoidectomy, and soon after he developed meningitis. On November 30, 1900, this brilliant poet who had delighted millions, only to become the object of their homophobia and cruelty, passed away in a dingy hotel room in Paris.

He died at age 46. But it was at age 36 that he published the book that eventually killed him, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In this book, Dorian Gray remains constantly young and innocent-looking, while engaged in a pleasurable lifestyle of debauchery. However a portrait of him grows older and uglier from dissipation, with every hedonistic act indulged in by Gray. Literary scholars teach that the picture is symbolic of Dorian’s true inner self, growing increasingly evil and corrupt as he delved deeper into hedonism.

That may be, but I wonder if Wilde also intended another meaning.

Perhaps it had been a fantasy for Wilde that he could get away with coming out and subtly revealing the truth about his sexual orientation. And maybe Dorian Gray’s picture was meant to be symbolic of Wilde’s ever-deteriorating, seedy reputation.

Oscar’s career had already thrived for many years, in spite of what morality critics thought and wrote about him. So he wasn’t afraid of a bad reputation, and maybe he felt tempted to push the envelope further. Perhaps he calculated that his writing career could be like Dorian Gray, continuing to thrive successfully in spite of his reputation (the picture) looking worse and worse every day.

If so, it was a disastrous miscalculation. He could handle a besmirched reputation. But he didn’t count on the people of England destroying him.

After Dorian Gray dies, his portrait returns overnight to its original unsullied image. But such transformation wasn’t so fast for the reputation of Oscar Wilde. For a long time after his death he remained a pariah in the minds of the masses.

It has taken many years for society to accept homosexual people and embrace gay rights. And in fact there is still much more progress to be made.

But the poet’s reputation and popularity did eventually recover. Today Oscar Wilde is regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time.

And the book that killed him also recovered. Several films have been made, based upon The Picture of Dorian Gray. And it has inspired plots for quite a few other works of didactic fiction. These days, The Picture is regarded as a great literary classic.

In 2017 the British Parliament passed the Alan Turing Law, which pardoned an estimated 50,000 men who had been convicted of criminal homosexual acts.

Oscar Wilde was among those pardoned. Like Dorian Gray’s picture, his reputation was finally restored.

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The Death and Burial of Cactus Ed

Cactus Ed vomited blood, then sat at his typewriter in Fort Llatikcuf. Fort Llatikcuf (to be read backwards) was the name he gave his home in southern Arizona. Cactus Ed knew he was dying, and wished to express his wishes for his final arrangements.

As a farewell message to all the people who loved and hated him, he typed, “No comments.”

Cactus Ed had authored several bestselling books during his lifetime. These books were very influential, and helped in the passage of laws for preservation of our wilderness lands. The next time you get distracted by the scenery and step off a cliff while hiking in some heart-stopping, untouched landscape, say a silent “thank you” to Cactus Ed.

Southern Utah was Cactus Ed’s favorite spot on earth. He fought hard to protect broken-up wildlands like this, found in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Cactus Ed was a controversial figure. He wasn’t just a man of words. He believed in direct action. His books promoted civil disobedience, and he was the original standard-bearer for the radical environmental movement. His work inspired the birth of anarchist environmental organizations such as Earth First! In fact, he was revered by Earth Firsters and often spoke at early gatherings of this organization.

His failing fingers managed to type that he wanted his body transported in the bed of a pickup truck.

Did you ever take a college course in literature? If so you may have been assigned to read the book, Desert Solitaire. The literary world considers it a classic of the American West. It’s Cactus Ed’s autobiography about several summers he spent as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument (now a national park), in Utah.

In many ways, Cactus Ed fought a losing war, as evidenced by this overlay of civilization (high voltage power lines), against orange sandstone formations in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Continuing with his dying instructions, he requested that he be buried as soon as possible, with no undertakers, and “no embalming, for Godsake.”

Before Desert Solitaire, Cactus Ed had written a novel entitled The Brave Cowboy. In 1962 it became the movie Lonely Are the Brave, starring Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau, with screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (who had been blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1940s and 50s, for being a communist). Kirk Douglas played Jack Burns, a roaming ranch hand who refused to join modern society and who rejected such things as driver’s licenses and draft cards.

Cactus Ed didn’t like draft cards. He was a World War II vet who got a college education in the late-1940s, funded by the G.I. Bill. In 1947 he publicly urged fellow students to rid themselves of their draft cards. That prompted the FBI to put him on their watch list. They kept him there the rest of his life. Many years later Cactus Ed learned about being on this watch list and commented, “I’d be insulted if they weren’t watching me.”

Capitol Reef National Park, from the mountains of Dixie National Forest. One could easily stumble off a cliff while enjoying this view. Thank you for such dangers, Cactus Ed!

He typed away. He requested that he have no coffin, just an old sleeping bag, and that all state laws should be disregarded concerning his burial. In his words, “I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree.”

In spite of Desert Solitaire, The Brave Cowboy, or the TV movie Fire On the Mountain, after his novel of the same name, he is best known by environmental activists for his novels, The Monkey Wrench Gang and Hayduke Lives!

These novels read like bibles and manuals for anarchists. They are fictional non-fictionals, because they are based upon true events. The true events were the ecotage, or ecology-motivated sabotage, surreptitiously committed by Cactus Ed and a band of his close friends.

Cactus Ed hated billboards. And he despised heavy earth-moving equipment, especially the bulldozer, that rips, tears, and levels the earth, allowing for the “progress” of “civilization” into wilderness areas.

He and his merry band of saboteurs stalked the desert night with monkey wrenches and a variety of other tools. They sawed billboards down, poured sugar into the gas tanks of bulldozers, and dismantled parts off of any and all earth-moving equipment they could find. On one occasion they discovered ignition keys foolishly left inside a huge bulldozer. They started that dozer up, put it in gear, and pointed it toward the nearest steep cliff. It crashed and burned 500 feet below.

It was a cliff like this that saw the demise of that monstrous bulldozer.

The old war veteran typed a little more with his dying fingers. He prescribed his funeral. He wanted gunfire and a little music. He stipulated, “No formal speeches desired, though the deceased will not interfere if someone feels the urge. But keep it all simple and brief.”

After that he wanted a big happy raucous wake. He wanted more music, including bagpipes, and it all should be gay and lively. He asked for “a flood of beer and booze! Lots of singing, dancing, talking, hollering, laughing, and lovemaking.” He also wanted meat, beans, chilis, and corn on the cob to be served.

He had suffered for a long time from esophageal varices, which are veins deep in the throat that can bleed easily. They are caused by cirrhosis of the liver. A few days earlier he had undergone surgery for these varices, but Cactus Ed sensed the operation was unsuccessful. He was right.

Just ten days before he left this world, on March 4, 1989, all was going well. Cactus Ed had entertained a gathering of fans by reading to them passages from the first draft of his book, Hayduke Lives!, a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang.

About a week later he had the surgery, and on March 14, 1989, Cactus Ed bled to death from his throat.

He died at Fort Llatikcuf among family and friends. Before the rigors of mortis set in, these friends dutifully wrapped his corpse in a sleeping bag and loaded it into the back of a pickup truck. They drove him into the Cabeza Prieta desert, to one of Cactus Ed’s favorite secret spots. They buried him there, in an unmarked grave. The only hint they’ve given as to the exact location of this tomb are the words, “you’ll never find it.”

But his friends say they did carve a marker on a nearby stone that reads:

EDWARD PAUL ABBEY
January 29, 1927-March 14, 1989
NO COMMENT

Later that month about 200 of Cactus Ed’s friends gathered near Saguaro National Monument near Tucson, Arizona, and held the wake he requested. A second, much larger wake was held in May of that year, just outside his beloved Arches National Park, and several notables spoke at that wake.

Cactus Ed left behind a wife, several ex-wives, and five children from different marriages. And as for the afterlife, he left us this message from his book, Desert Solitaire:

“If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture – that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.”

The Dirty Devil river, near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Cactus Ed hated the Glen Canyon Dam, and often railed against it. He bemoaned the loss of scenic Glen Canyon and its tributaries, such as the Dirty Devil river, which were swamped by the dam(n)’s Lake Powell. This photo was taken after a long drought that caused Lake Powell to recede and that resurrected the Dirty Devil to it’s prior magnificence.

Move Over, Andy

Daguerrotype of Andrew Jackson a few months before he died, in 1845, at age 78. Looks like all his hard living caught up with him.
Daguerrotype of Andrew Jackson a few months before he died, in 1845, at age 78. Looks like all his hard living caught up with him.

Andrew Jackson is getting kicked to the back of the $20 bill by a short little black lady. The Treasury department has announced that in 2020 our 20’s will grace the face of Harriet Tubman on the front, and Andy Jackson on the back.

How could this happen to ol’ Hickory? Why he’s the general who whupped the British in the Battle of New Orleans. He killed a man in a duel. And he carried that same man’s bullet embedded in his chest, near his heart, for the rest of his life. He fought Seminole Indians, and wrested Florida from Spain. And he rendered President John Quincy Adams completely feckless in a bitter political feud, that led to his own election as president.

You didn’t want to mess with Andrew Jackson. Unless maybe you were Harriet Tubman. So what did this little (5’2″) lady do that was so much tougher and greater than our seventh president?

Harriet Tubman (1922-1913) at age 73, looking tough as ever. She even kept Death scared away until the age of 91.
Harriet Tubman (1922-1913) at age 73, looking tough as ever. She even kept Death scared away until the age of 91.

Well first, she was born a slave. Just to survive that experience must require a lot of toughness in your bones. Then in 1849, at age 27, she escaped and made her way to Philadelphia. Now she had it made. She could live the rest of her life in freedom and peace. This was admirable of her, but not good enough for Harriet.

This escaped slave decided to return to her former home in Maryland and assist other slaves in traveling the “Underground Railroad” to the North. And she spent the next decade sneaking back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line, again and again, rescuing hundreds of people from slavery. She put her life at great risk doing this, because if she had been caught they surely would have hanged her.

When the Civil War broke out Harriet could have sat back and let the Union army finish the job of manumission. But instead she joined the army. She led a band of scouts in and around South Carolina, mapping unfamiliar terrain for the Union, and performing reconnoitering missions.

She was also the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. On June 2, 1863, she guided three steamboats through the Combahee River in South Carolina, and liberated over 750 slaves from plantations along the shore. Most of these slaves joined the Union army, fortifying the cause.

She spent more than two years working for the Union army, conducting raids, scouting Confederate territory, tending to liberated slaves, and nursing wounded soldiers.

After the war she became active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Our government dragged its feet in recognizing Tubman’s contribution to the war effort. But in 1899 she was finally granted a pension. Ironically it was in the amount of $20 a month.

Andrew Jackson was indeed a tough character. But he owned hundreds of slaves, so he couldn’t have had life that rough. Imagine being Harriet Tubman. Consider what she went through, wading through swamps and cold rivers, stumbling through the dark with slave hunters on her trail. Risking everything for the freedom of others, with no thought for her own personal fortune or advancement. It’s hard for me to think of any great Americans in history who did more for the cause and spirit of freedom than her.

When I weigh these two great Americans, I must agree with the Treasury department. I will feel very proud of my country when I see Harriet Tubman’s face on our currency. So move over, Andy.

Al’s Revenge

Al in prison
Al in prison

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Al was sentenced to prison after what he did to Uncle Joe. Everybody loved Uncle Joe. It served Al right. Now he would have a cozy stay in a country club atmosphere for the next eight years. Lucky Al. Better not complain, Al.

His first cell was no larger than a broom closet. It was impossible to sit or lie down. And he was ordered to stay awake. If he was caught with his eyes closed, he’d be dragged out of his cell and chewed on by guard dogs. He was beaten and interrogated, and finally sentenced to hard labor.

He found himself imprisoned with other people who had also done bad things to Uncle Joe. Quite a few of these inmates loved Uncle Joe, and they were truly repentant. Nonetheless, they were forced to work very hard to win remission for their sins. And they were fed very little. Many died.

Some of them wrote letters to Uncle Joe before they died. They wanted him to be aware of just how unbelievably harsh these prison conditions were. Surely if he knew just how bad it was, he’d reform the prisons immediately. Uncle Joe was a very affable, nice guy, and a hero to all the common people. Certainly he would understand and do something.

Al survived. He was released from the country club after eight years, in 1953. But he didn’t like Uncle Joe anymore. He began writing a very long book. He researched thoroughly, and scrivened in secret. Uncle Joe was now dead, but many still loved him. He had to be very careful. He once wrote, “during all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared this would become known.”

He wrote other works also which, after 1960, his government was willing to allow in print. He gained world-wide fame, and eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. But this book about his prison experience had to remain a secret. His government already hated him for his success and that infernal Nobel Prize. In 1971 they even poisoned him with ricin. It made him very sick, but he survived.

Twenty years had passed since his release from prison and he still wasn’t sure when to exact his revenge. But the police were on to him. They tortured one of his typists until she revealed where a copy of the manuscript was hidden. Then she hanged herself. Al knew he had to act quickly before more co-conspirators were harmed. Several friends managed to smuggle other copies of the manuscript across the border. He gave the go-ahead signal.

In December 1973, it was published in France. It cost him his country. Six weeks later his government expelled him, and he had to live in exile for the next two decades. He returned to his home only after his government finally collapsed, unable to sustain itself under the weight of world criticism and internal dissension.

Al is one of my favorite literary figures, though I’ve only read his magnum opus. His famous book he kept secret for so long is The Gulag Archipelago. It documents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s experiences, as well as the experiences of hundreds of other inmates in the Soviet gulag of prisons under Joseph Stalin. They had been arrested for making mildly critical comments about their country’s beloved “Uncle Joe”.

The Gulag Archipelago graphically exposed the dark secrets of the Soviet Union’s treatment of political prisoners. Communism was portrayed as subsisting on forced labor, and lost its luster to western ideologues. The Soviets were staggered. They stumbled about for the next eighteen years until finally their government crumbled.

It’s a long read. I recommend the abridged version. Which is still a long read.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, at the age of 89. That he survived so long is testament to the power of luck, persistence, and very careful planning. And perhaps also to the restorative power of revenge. He did what many of us dream of doing. He exposed the corruption and horror of unchecked authority. And he served his revenge on a plate twenty years cold. A revenge as chilly, yet invigorating, as the snowy winters of Siberia.

Harry Browne

My thumbworn copy. Could be a collector's item, since it's out-of-print. But no, I'm not selling it.
My thumbworn copy. Could be a collector’s item, since it’s out-of-print. But no, I’m not selling it.

Harry Browne died ten years ago today. Harry who, what the heck? Harry Browne. He was a candidate for U.S. President, you know.

I was in my 20’s. I was depressed and suicidal. I was broke and my life was going nowhere. Then I picked up the book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne. This great book is now out of print, and that’s a shame. It applies libertarian philosophies to the traps we find ourselves in life, and shows you how to free yourself from those traps. Browne describes traps such as, The Morality Trap, The Group Trap, The Government Trap, The Despair Trap, and so forth.

Harry Browne was a disciple of Ludwig von Mises, who had a heavy influence on the libertarian movement in the mid-20th century. I, myself, became a disciple of Harry Browne. I applied his teachings to my life, and really did turn things around. I shook off my dependence on others and embarked on a path of self-determination. I pursued the things in life that truly made me happy. I found a successful career. I met my current wife, and we’ve had a close, loving relationship for nearly a quarter century now.

I owe a lot to Harry Browne.

In the early days of this freedom path, I was a perfervid proselyte of libertarianism. I crafted my own moral code, avoided group efforts, and regarded government with great skepticism. Harry Browne’s advice was that government does not solve any problems, and I took that to heart.

You can mine a lot of valuable gold from the libertarian philosophy. But beware of the fool’s gold. No one can be completely independent, as wonderful as that sounds in theory. Reality checks have moderated my passion. Apparently they moderated Browne, also.

Harry augured against being caught up in the Group Trap and the Government Trap. But he also gave investment advice, which included investing in stocks. Stocks are issued by corporations, and corporations are group efforts. Also, corporations cannot exist without government laws and charters. So we must fall into the Government Trap if we want to follow his advice and invest in stocks.

Harry Browne even ran for president, winning the Libertarian Party’s nomination in 1996 and 2000. In 1996 he garnered 485,798 votes. One of those votes was mine. So he and I were both kind of caught in the Government Trap, he by running for office, and me by voting for him.

He was an investment analyst for most of his life, and developed the permanent portfolio investment strategy. It’s designed to protect your assets from large losses. However it also make spectacular gains virtually impossible.

In 1970, he authored the book How You Can Profit from the Coming Devaluation, where he accurately predicted the devaluation of the dollar, and a sharp rise in gold prices. Had you abandoned the permanent portfolio strategy and followed his advice in that particular book, you would have made a fortune.

In 1989, he authored the book The Economic Time Bomb: How You Can Profit from the Emerging Crises, where he inaccurately predicted a global economic apocalypse. Had you followed his advice in that book, you would have missed out on the skyrocketing stock market during the 1990s.

But in most of his books on investing, Browne warned about following the advice of anyone who predicts an economic downturn or upturn. He claimed that no one can consistently predict the future of any investment with accuracy, and you should calibrate your investment strategy accordingly, by diversifying.

So he fell into the very traps he warned against. And he made predictions, while advising us to beware of predictions. He was a man of contradictions, faltering on the very philosophical paths he advocated. But don’t we all?

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Harry Browne shocked many of his followers when he wrote a column entitled When Will We Learn. It criticized our nation’s foreign policies as being a catalyst for the 9/11 attacks. He lost some of his followers over this, including the conservative radio and television personality, Larry Elder, who quit the Libertarian Party and became a Republican. Nonetheless, it became his most widely-read column.

Harry Browne succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease on March 1st, 2006. He was 72. He was eulogized by Congressman Ron Paul.

My life has been guided by many philosophers, but he is one of the foremost. So on this day I remember him. Keep resting in peace, Harry Browne.