Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

Edgar Allan Poe: Creator of Enduring Terror and Literary Masterpieces


Edgar Allan Poe was the first American writer to earn a living completely by his pen–though that living wasn’t always enough to live on. The legendary author redefined the genre of horror and is rightly called the father of the modern detective novel. But these legacies are the result of a more visceral one: Poe’s ability to evoke an all-encompassing terror that springs not from without, but from within.

Poe’s Incredible Influence

It’s well known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin as a model for his own detective, Sherlock Holmes, and that Doyle’s short stories (“Hound of the Baskervilles” in particular) owe a tremendous debt to Poe. Indeed, Doyle once rhetorically asked, “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed life into it?” But Poe’s influence reached beyond the worlds of horror and mystery. He has long been a beloved figure in literature, one whose power has not waned with the passage of many generations.

Poe and Washington Irving exchanged admiration for one another via correspondence. Irving noted that “the graphic effect [of “Fall of the House of Usher”] is powerful.” Poe responded by sending Irving a copy of “William Wilson,” which he considered his best work. Poe admitted that the story had been inspired by Irving himself, particularly Irving’s “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron.”

Robert Louis Stevenson said of Poe, “He who could write ‘King Pest’ has ceased to be a human being.” Stevenson found Poe’s stories absolutely gripping, and was undoubtedly flattered when critic Andrew Lang said that Stevenson was “like Poe with the addition of moral sense.”

Meanwhile Oscar Wilde ranked Poe’s poetry as more important than that of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Wilde emulated elements of Poe’s style in The Picture of Dorian Gray–which wasn’t lost on Walter Pater, who ardently praised Wilde’s efforts to evoke Poe’s style in the novel. Wilde’s colleague and defender George Bernard Shaw, often an unforgiving critic, was downright effusive about Poe, saying that the American author “constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty. [His tales are] a world record for the English language: perhaps for all languages.”

Allen Ginsberg argued that “everything leads to Poe….Burroughs, Baudelaire, Genet, Dylan,” and Jorge Luis Borges contended that “contemporary literature would not be what it is” without Whitman and Poe. TS Eliot, however, was not initially convinced of Poe’s genius. He excluded Poe from both American and European literary traditions, calling Poe a “displaced European.” Eliot later acknowledged that he’d underestimated Poe’s talent.

Vladimir Nabokov included multiple allusions to “Annabel Lee” in his masterpiece, Lolita. It appears that Nabokov was indeed deeply interested in Poe; he meticulously mapped the area around Poe’s home and sketched the manifestations of soul in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which he taught within the context of Poe). Both documents are currently on view at the Morgan Library’s excellent exhibit, Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul.

Later on, novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern, author of Dr. Strangelove, was deeply influenced by Poe, especially The Narrative of A Gordon Pym. Southern wrote an appreciation of Poe, called “King Weirdo,” which was published posthumously. And Stephen King has frequently borrowed archetypal themes from Poe’s works for his own horror novels. The Shining reminds us of both “Masque of the Red Death” and “Fall of the House of Usher.”

Collecting Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe makes a fascinating focus for a single-author collection and also fits wonderfully into nineteenth-century American literature and horror literature libraries. Poe’s works weren’t actually that popular during his lifetime, so they were issued in relatively small print runs. The first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827) is famously scarce; only twelve copies are known to exist. (Three are currently on display together at the Morgan Library!)

Even if Tamerlane is out of reach, there are countless other desirable editions and volumes. For example the Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe, published by George Robertson in 1868, was the first edition of Poe’s works to appear in Australia. It differs significantly from the British and American editions.

No illustrated editions of Poe’s works were published during his lifetime. The first, Tales of Mystery, Imagination and Humor; and Poems (1852) was illustrated by artists unknown, as they were not given credit for their work. Famous illustrators Edouard Manet, Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, Edmund Dulac, and Arthur Rackham; first editions of Poe’s works illustrated by these artists are highly desirable.

Poe’s works often showed up in serially issued collections. One of these is The Gift, A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1842. This compilation includes Poe’s “Eleonora,” along with items from Howard Huntley, Catherine Beecher, and Park Benjamin. The volume also includes an uncollected piece by Lydia Sigourney, “The Village Church.”


The Irving Offering for 1851

When Elizabeth Gaskell first published “Lizzie Leigh,” the story was initially ascribed to Charles Dickens–whose byline meant big bucks for publishers. “Lizzie Leigh” appears under Dickens’ name in The Irving Offering: A Token of Affection for 1851, which also include’s Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” The edition is fairly scarce: OCLC records none west of the Mississippi.

Though Edgar Allan Poe enjoys special attention around Halloween, collectors of rare books appreciate his works year round. If you’re looking for a specific item for your Poe collection, please don’t hesitate to contact us! We’re happy to help.



Oscar Wilde, Dickens Detractor and “Inventor” of Aubrey Beardsley

“I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’l be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be infamous.” –Oscar Wilde

Oscar-WildeBorn on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland, Oscar Wilde is perhaps remembered more for his sparkling wit, larger-than-life personality, and historic trial than for his literary achievements. But the author made his mark on the literary world not only through his prolific career as a journalist, novelist, and dramatist, but also through his sometimes bizarre relationships with other literary figures. These interactions make collecting Wilde an even more engaging pursuit.

Love Lost between Wilde and Bram Stoker

Wilde’s mother, Lady Jane, was a formidable author in her own right. She often kept literary company, and her circle of friends soon came to include Bram Stoker. Stoker soon met Florence Balcombe, a legendary beauty who had previously been involved with Wilde. Accounts of Balcombe’s relationship with Wilde vary; he claimed the two had been engaged. At any rate, Wilde was less than pleased when he learned that Stoker had proposed to Balcombe. He wrote to Balcombe, stating that he would never return to Ireland again. Wilde mostly kept to his word, returning to Ireland only for brief visits.


But Stoker and Wilde’s relationship stretched beyond this inopportune love triangle. The two had gone to school together; Stoker even recommended Wilde for membership into the university’s Philosophical Society. And after Stoker and Balcombe had been married and Wilde had had sufficient time to lick his wounds, Stoker reinitiated the relationship. After Wilde was convicted of sodomy, Stoker even visited him. Yet Stoker also fastidiously removed all mention of Wilde from his published and unpublished texts, and it’s only recently that critics have begun to see Wilde’s influence in Stoker’s great novel Dracula.

Wilde Rejects Dickens’ Legacy…Or Does He?

Old Curiosity Shop-Little NellWilde heaped praise upon Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He even called Aurora Leigh “the greatest work in our literature.” But he was less than complimentary when it came to the great Charles Dickens; Wilde is famous for saying of Charles Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop, “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell and not to dissolve into tears…of laughter.” Wilde found Dickens overly sentimental and wished to separate himself from this aspect of Dickens’ Victorian England. Yet he never fully succeeded in escaping Dickens’ shadow (indeed, few authors of the century did).

Critics have pointed to similarities in the ways that Wilde and Dickens portray London, and Wilde even makes allusions to Dickens’ works–most notably Little Dorritt. Little Dorritt’s Mrs. General repeats the phrase “Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes, and prism” to her young charges, and the phrase “prunes and prism” soon became closely associated with her character. Is it any coincidence, then, that Wilde chooses the name “Ms. Prism” for the proper governess in The Importance of Being Earnest? Even though Wilde didn’t subscribe to Dickens’ sentimental style, it’s likely that he had great respect for Dickens, as Wilde himself aspired to the same international acclaim that the Inimitable One had achieved.

An Outlandish Claim Spurred by Public Rivalry

Beardsley-Salome-WildeIn April 1893, an up and coming artist was moved by the French publication of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. He drew Salome with St. John’s head, and the illustration became one of several that would accompany Joseph Pennell’s article on him in the first number of The Savoy. The artist, Aubrey Beardsley, contacted Wilde about illustrating the translation of Salome. Wilde responded in kindness, sending Beardsley an inscribed edition that read “For Aubrey: for the only artist who knows what the dance of seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance. Oscar” It wasn’t outright rejection, but it wasn’t an enthusiastic invitation, either.

Then Beardsley was contracted to illustrate Lord Alfred Douglas‘ English translation of Salome. Wilde initially called Beardsley’s illustrations for the work “too Japanese,” pointing out that the work was more Byzantine. Wilde then took his criticism a step further, saying that Beardsley’s art resembled “naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybook.” The rivalry exploded; Beardsley published caricatures of Wilde, and Wilde made the preposterous claim that he had “invented Aubrey Beardsley.” In reality, Wilde had simply worried all along that Beardsley’s brilliance would overshadow his own.

Mutual Admiration from a Distance

In November 1879, George Bernard Shaw met Oscar Wilde at Lady Jane’s London home. The two had trouble interacting, though Wilde clearly had good intentions toward Shaw. A few years later, on July 6, 1888, Wilde attended a meeting of the Fabian Society, likely at Shaw’s invitation. Artist Walter Crane spoke on “The Prospects of Art under Socialism,” which soon moved Wilde to write The Soul of Man under Socialism. Meanwhile over the years Shaw and Wilde maintained a pleasant relationship, albeit from a distance. They frequently exchanged books and letters and openly complimented each other’s works.

Shaw frequently defended Wilde against his critics, and he again rallied to Wilde’s defense when he was arrested for sodomy. Shaw was adamant that “never was there a man less an outlaw” than Wilde. Shaw and other writers put together a petition for Wilde’s early release, but it found surprisingly little support and was eventually dropped. As public opinion turned against Wilde and eventually forgot him entirely, Shaw still insisted on reminding people of Wilde’s greatness. He regularly mentioned him in drama reviews and remained fascinated with Wilde’s work for the rest of his life. When Frank Harris undertook his (somewhat controversial) biography of Wilde, Shaw edited it with the assistance of Lord Douglas.

Collecting Oscar Wilde

For collectors, Oscar Wilde is the ideal case study in how a single-author collection can–and should–come to include materials by a variety of other authors. A comprehensive Oscar Wilde collection would encompass the works of Wilde, not only his major literary pieces, but also the articles he penned as a journalist and critic. And a truly comprehensive collection would have a second layer: other authors’ reactions to and interactions with Wilde. For example, Shaw’s reviews mentioning Wilde are scarce because they were printed in periodicals on cheap paper, making them a challenging item for collectors to acquire. And Aubrey Beardsley’s caricatures of Wilde are sought after by both Beardsley and Wilde collectors alike, making them a desirable addition to an Oscar Wilde collection.

Oscar Wilde certainly left his mark on the world as an author and public figure. He will undoubtedly remain a popular figure among rare book collectors for generations to come.


A Brief History of True Crime Literature

True crime literature is unique because, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, the genre has “always been enormously popular among readers…[and] appeals to the highly educated as well as the barely educated, to women and men equally.” The popularity of true crime literature extends to the rare book world.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

The literature of true crime dates all the way back to the Elizabethan era, but the genre didn’t enter the mainstream until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It its earliest form, true crime literature included biographies of prisoners before and after executions. In some cases, these accounts were factual, but they were just as often completely fictionalized–and almost always sensationalized. These gave rise to fictional criminal autobiographies, notably The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1721) by Daniel Defoe. Domestic dramas such as George Lillo’s The London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnard (1731).

William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray

The second half of the eighteenth century saw a sharp decline in crime literature, but the genre reasserted itself in the nineteenth century. Factual reporting, in the style of Francis Kirkman’s The Counterfeit Lady Revealed (1673), again came into vogue. The Newgate Calendar published criminal biographies starting in 1773, and it was periodically published before finally being compiled in 1841. In the United States, the National Police Gazette was launched in 1845 and remains in publication today. Meanwhile leading literary figures also began to address issues of crime and punishment. Charles Dickens included studies of Newgate and the Old Bailey in his Sketches by Boz, and William Makepeace Thackeray wrote “Going to See a Man Hanged” (1840).

Perhaps the most influential was “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” two essays Thomas de Quincey published in Blackwood’s Magazine (1827 and 1839). De Quincey explored the Radcliffe murders of 1811, which were presumably committed by mariner John Williams. He delved into the psychology of the murderer, victims, and witnesses in a way that no other author had attempted before. Oscar Wilde followed suit in “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” in 1889, when he argued that Thomas Griffith’s creativity improved when he began taking out life insurance policies on relatives, whom he then poisoned with strychnine. These seminal works paved the way for modern works like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966).

Crime in fiction had taken a turn for the low brow; starting in the 1820’s the so-called “Newgate novel” romanticized the lives of criminals, depicting highwaymen as heroes–even when their exploits ended at the gallows. Thackeray would parody Newgate novels in several of his works and publicly attach their authors, but the works still flourished. GWM Reynolds, for example, published Mysteries of London from 1845 to 1848, with sequels to 1856. The books, which sold for one cent, came to be known as “penny dreadfuls.”

Sherlock Holmes

The iconic Sherlock Holmes

The 1830’s saw the development of the modern police force–with detectives to investigate crime and constables to enforce order–in both England and the United States. For this we can thank, among others, author and magistrate Henry Fielding. Soon these men of the law popped up as characters in fiction: Inspector Bucket in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853) and Sergeant Cuff in Collins’ The Moonstone (1868), respectively based on real-life Scotland Yard detectives Charles Field and Jack Whicher. Poe invented a more complex detective in his C. Auguste Dupin character, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle debuted Sherlock Holmes in 1887. Four years later the detective began making regular appearances in Doyle’s Strand Magazine.

In the last century there has been a markedly decreased overlap of true crime and literature. But the genre of true crime writing remains quite popular, and many rare book collectors build entire collections around the genre. There are plenty of interesting items for collectors of true crime literature and ephemera.

The Confessions of Jesse Strang

Originally from Putnam County, New York, Jesse Strang deserted his wife when he suspected that she’d been unfaithful. After a stint in Ohio, Strang made his way to western New York–where he faked his own death in the spring of 1826. Strang ended up in Albany, where he used the alias of “Joseph Orton.” He saw Elsie Whipple in an Albany bar and was immediately interested in the spirited young woman. Elsie was the daughter of a wealthy family in Albany, and Strang managed to get hired as a handyman at the family’s estate, Cherry Hill–where Elsie lived with her husband, John. But that didn’t stop Strang from pursuing Elsie, and the two were soon exchanging love letters with the assistance of other members of the household.

Cherry Hill-Jesse Strang

Cherry Hill as it looked at the time of the murder

Elsie, known for being moody and tempestuous, decided that the lovers should kill John and run away together. Strang was reluctant, but ultimately supplied Elsie with arsenic to poison John. But she didn’t administer enough poison, and John merely suffered an upset stomach. The lovers clearly needed a more foolproof plan, and Elsie urged Strang to shoot John. Eventually he acquiesced, climbing onto the roof and shooting John through a window into the couple’s quarters. Elsie had removed the curtain to give Strang a clear shot. Strang rushed to a local store to give himself an alibi, then returned and even helped the doctor remove the bullet from John’s body. But the police ruled that Strang had enough time to commit the murder and make it to the store, so he was arrested. He immediately confessed and implicated Elsie.

Strang desperately asked his lawyer to plant papers at Cherry Hill implicating Elsie as the mastermind of the plot, arguing that Elsie would receive a lighter sentence because she was a woman. His lawyer refused, but Strang was correct. While he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, Elsie was found not guilty on all charges. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people came to watch Strang’s execution on August 24, 1827. Among the crowd were peddlers hawking pamphlets containing Strang’s confession. Strang himself promoted the pamphlet from the scaffold, saying, “This contains a confession of the great transaction for which I am about to die, and every single word that it contains, tot he best of my knowledge, is true; if there is a single word in i t that is not true, it has been inserted by mistake, not by design.” Strang’s hanging was botched, and his neck did not break. He hung for half an hour before suffocating. It was the last hanging in Albany.

Official Report of the Trial of Laura D Fair

On November 3, 1870, Laura D Fair followed Alexander Parker Crittendon onto a ferry, where he was meeting his family. Fair shot Crittendon in the chest with a pepperbox pistol and fled to the ship’s saloon, where she immediately confessed to her crime. Fair believed that she was defending her own name; Crittendon had represented himself as single when he began courting Fair, and when she discovered that he was married, Crittendon promised to divorce his wife. When he failed to follow through, Fair decided to exact revenge.

Laura D Fair

Laura Fair

The ensuing trial was a national sensation. Fair’s defense argued that Fair had experienced delayed menstruation (in part because she assumed a masculine role by running her own business), which resulted in temporary insanity. Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony took up the cause, noting that “female hysteria” had long been used to subjugate women to men. Prosecutors also focused on gender, portraying Fair as a man-hungry murderess whose temporary insanity could also have been caused by sexual excess. Fair was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the trial was overturned because evidence had been incorrectly admitted. After a second trial, Fair was acquitted.

The case remained in the headlines intermittently from June 1871 to January 1873. Mark Twain and his collaborator Charles Dudley Warner would incorporate the case into Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day, published in December 1873: Laura Hawkins bears a striking similarity to Laura Fair. Twain also incorporated another famous trial; the Senate investigation of Senator Dilworthy for vote buying parallels the real trial of Kansas Senator Samuel C Pomeroy. Both critics and historians agree that these sensational elements greatly contributed to the novel’s success.

Ruth Snyder’s Own True Story

Ruth Snyder

Snyder and Judd Gray conferring during a break in the trial

In 1925, housewife Ruth Brown Snyder began an affair with married corset salesman Henry Judd Gray. She soon began planning her husband, Albert’s murder, with only reluctant support from Judd Gray. Snyder reportedly made seven attempts to kill her husband. Finally, she and Judd Gray garrotted Albert, shoved chloroform soaked rags up his nose, and staged a burglary. Their ploy fell apart under only the slightest scrutiny, and they were both convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Ruth would be the first woman executed at Sing Sing since 1899, and the first ever to be executed by electrocution.

The murder trial was covered by a number of prominent journalists, but only one was granted an interview: Jack Lait, who would provide Ruth the typewriter she used to record her memoir. Ruth Snyder’s Own True Story (1927) proved a poignant and candid account of Ruth’s experience–and a useful bit of propaganda for Lait. In the preface, he writes that Ruth “bristles with courage, she has poise, assurance, no end of intelligence…she loves like fire and hates like TNT.” (With such a portrayal, it’s perhaps no wonder that Ruth received 107 marriage proposals before her execution!) At Ruth’s execution, Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard captured her final moment with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. The image, now famous, was emblazoned on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Our interest in rare books about true crime shows no evidence of fading, especially since the genre so frequently intersects with the worlds of history and literature. How has true crime crept into your book collection?