Learning One's Letters

Why was Oscar Wilde's "Letter to Momma" lurking undiscovered in Texas?

In Oscar Wilde's earliest known letter, the 14-year-old writes to his mother from boarding school, thanking her for sending him a package. His drawing is of two boys performing a jig around a hamper, while another boy weeps in the corner. Wilde's caption below the boys describes the scene: Ye delight of ye two boys at ye hamper and ye sorrow of ye hamperless boy.
In Oscar Wilde's earliest known letter, the 14-year-old writes to his mother from boarding school, thanking her for sending him a package. His drawing is of two boys performing a jig around a hamper, while another boy weeps in the corner. Wilde's caption below the boys describes the scene: "Ye delight of ye two boys at ye hamper and ye sorrow of ye hamperless boy."

Paper conservators have a tendency to get so absorbed in the minute details of their task, so lost in the delicate removal of a miniscule mold bloom, or in the mending of a hairline tear, that they often lose sight of the underlying item itself. Much like a surgeon might forget about the human patient on the operating table and concentrate solely on leaving a clean stitch, so a conservator will spend weeks repairing a blemish in the corner of an old letter while thinking little about the actual document itself.

On August 24, 2000, Stephanie Watkins, head of paper conservation at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, didn't have this experience. That afternoon she prepared the following report:

The letter is currently tipped along the left fold between the endpage ... with a medium weight wove paper. The letter is very soiled. When the letter is opened, several brown stains are located in the center top, lower left, and along the right edge. A small water tideline is located on the front page, center bottom.

As far as condition reports go, this one's fairly standard -- aside from the fact that the object under Watkins' magnifying glass happened to be the earliest known letter ever written by Oscar Wilde. The "Letter to Momma," as it's come to be called, was written by a precocious Oscar as a 14-year-old boarding school student in Ireland. Watkins was documenting its condition to prepare the letter for a transatlantic journey to the British Library, where it became the acclaimed centerpiece of an exhibit of Wilde letters that has since traveled to the Morgan Library in New York. Watkins and the Ransom Center found themselves working on this literary artifact because of a very strange and coincidental turn of events. And, for reasons I still find hard to grasp, because I was at the center of these events.

A little deep background. My attraction to historical letters has its ultimate origins in the Tet Offensive. It's kind of personal, but my father wrote my mother passionate letters every day in 1968 from some godforsaken jungle or another in Vietnam. Thirteen months, the same Marine Corps stationery, never under any circumstances -- and there were many -- skipping a day. My mother saved all 394 of his letters, but she scattered them in drawers, on shelves, and in piles of stuff throughout their Southern California bungalow. When my dad returned from combat, he dutifully gathered the letters, organized them chronologically in a shoebox, and imagined the day when his future children could witness his vivid testimony to love, war, and all the stuff in between.

Then the shoebox disappeared. Tragically, the letters fell victim to an itinerant young couple trying to escape the past and find a more hopeful future. These precious personal artifacts were lost in my parents' distracted peregrinations through a country that was finding the war and those who fought it increasingly difficult to stomach. My parents told the "letters story" so often that it achieved the status of mythical tragedy in our home. The loss has something, I'm sure, to do with my decision to become a historian, a decision that has made these letters' disappearance even more painful. Old letters have the unique ability to freeze moments that memory would have distorted. They preserve what time forgets and quietly keep us contextualized in the past -- and thereby, I think, more honest. I wanted a clear, unfiltered view into my dad's Vietnam world because my imagination just wasn't doing it for me. In fact, too often it was getting stuck on ridiculous images of Charlie Sheen charging through a bamboo thicket and having deep thoughts.

The Vietnam letters, I realize, have been sucked into history's vacuum. But letters, I also realize, are unpredictable artifacts. Oscar Wilde, of all people, gives me hope.

I found Wilde's letter in March 1998 at a Houston dinner party. I was browsing the host's bookshelves -- which strained under the dense weight of the "high literary tradition" -- when I noticed an old hardback titled Historiae Romanae. As I squeezed it out, the owner mentioned in passing that the Latin textbook belonged to Oscar Wilde when he was a schoolboy. I put it up and went back to the party. Later in the evening, though, I returned to the book, ran my thumb down its thick pages, read Wilde's marginal scrawlings and, just as I went to close it, caught the edge of a letter wedged underneath the blue leather cover.

The script was faded and the paper creased and yellowed, but I immediately noticed that it was addressed to "Darling Momma," signed "Oscar," and sent from the Portora School in Enniskillen, Ireland, on September 15, 1868. It went on:

The Hamper came today. I never got such a jolly surprise, many thanks for it, it was more than kind of you to think of it, the grapes and pears are delicious and so cooling, but the Blancmange got a little sour, I suppose by the knocking about, but the rest came all safe.

Don't forget please to send me the National Review, is it not issued today?

The flannel shirts you sent in the hamper are both Willie's [Oscar's older brother, also at Portora], mine are one quite scarlet and the other lilac but it is too early to wear them yet the weather is so hot.

We went down to the horrid Regatta on Thursday last it was very jolly there was a grand yacht race.

You never told me anything about the publisher in Glasgow, what does he say and have you written to Aunt Warren on the Green Note Paper?

We played the Officers of the 27th Regiment now quartered in Enniskillen, a few days ago and beat them hollow, by about seventy runs.

You may imagine my delight this morning when I got Papa's letter saying he had sent a hamper.

Now dear Momma I must bid you goodbye as the post goes very soon -- many thanks for letting me paint.

With love to Papa, ever your affectionate son ...

Thinking back on it, I was the wrong audience for this revelation. Had Merlin Holland been in my shoes that evening, however, he would have jumped out of them. Holland, I've since learned, is Oscar Wilde's grandson. When I found the letter, Holland was in London dutifully editing an updated collection of Wilde's letters for the British Library exhibit, which opened in October 2000. He wasn't having an easy time of it. His otherwise impressive compilation lacked letters from Wilde's early years and, while he knew such letters were out there, he was having little luck digging them up. Collectors often guard their troves with jealous stinginess and, despite several prominent queries in the obvious trade publications, nobody was coming forth. Holland had resigned himself to an exhibit marred by a very noticeable gap.

And here I was on the other side of the Atlantic -- on the other side of the Mississippi, even -- holding a really clever, whimsical, somewhat rambling gem of a note that Oscar had written as a 14-year-old to his "darling momma." It was a letter, moreover, with more than just antiquarian appeal. Literary historians know very little about Wilde's youth. One Wilde contemporary recalled that Oscar "got quicker into a book than any boy that ever lived." A current scholar cites Oscar's "great gift for saying trenchant things about other boys and giving them nicknames" -- i.e., for being an accomplished smart-ass. Beyond these tidbits, though, we know little. So the letter had some historical significance. The problem in the fall of 1998, of course, was that Merlin Holland was in London, I was in Texas, and neither of us had a damn clue about each other or what we were up to.

This changed in July 2000. More than two years after my discovery and just months before the Wilde exhibit's scheduled opening, Holland placed a last-ditch-effort ad in the New York Review of Books. I frequently skim this publication (nobody actually reads it), but I never bother with the classifieds. (Who would, unless they were seeking a divorced fiftysomething into Tolstoy, Bach, and summering in the Hamptons?) When I tossed the magazine back onto a porch table, though, a gust of wind sent the back pages into a flutter. I went to secure the magazine and noticed, buried in the corner, an author's query:

I am working on an updated and expanded edition of Oscar Wilde's letters, due for publication in November 2000, on the centenary of his death. I should like to hear from institutions or individuals owning unpublished letters which could be included in this new edition.

I rushed to the phone. Two weeks later I learned that Wilde's letter thanking his mother for a hamper was officially the earliest example of Oscar Wilde's writing. "It's the first letter he's known to have written," Holland told me. As a result of the owners' generosity (they wish to remain anonymous for this article), the letter was sent to the HRC, prepared for its overseas journey, and appraised. Sotheby's estimate for the book and letter was a cool $75,000. Every friend I told this story to kept bringing up the issue of a finder's fee.

But it was the letter's survival that really got my attention. When I spoke with Holland about the letter, he seemed especially miffed by its hiding place: Houston, Texas. "I have no idea how it could have come there," he told me. And not just Houston, I thought, but the River Oaks neighborhood. River Oaks is a revolving door of materialism powered by conspicuous consumption and historical amnesia. Everything about the place screams "latest model," be it SUVs, faux chateaux, breasts, or spouses.

Nevertheless, this is where the letter landed, and this is where what seemed like a pointless investigation began. I did have one clue. Holland had actually heard of the "Darling Momma" letter. He knew it existed; he just didn't know where. A London collector named John Stetson acquired the Latin book after Wilde's death in 1900. He subsequently sold Historiae Romanae, letter included, in a 1920 estate sale. But the paper trail abruptly ended there. Stetson never recorded future ownership. So, much like Wilde's reputation, the book and letter enjoyed 20 years of fawning attention and then fell into obscurity.

But at least I had a chronological starting point: 1920. My first step was to call Marguerite Johnston, the elegant, aging author of Houston: The Unknown City. When I asked Ms. Johnston how she thought this document might have migrated from London to Houston, maybe through New York, in the 1920s, she couldn't have been more sweet or less helpful. She paused for a long time and then drawled, "Honey, I've not the fawgiest of ideas." Before she hung up, though, she vaguely recalled that "Mame and Maudie" owned a local rare bookstore sometime in the 1920s.

Mame and Maudie? I knew I'd heard these names before. Mame, who died in 1995, was the mother of the host whose library held the Latin book. I called him, explained my situation, and asked him to dig up whatever letters his mother might have written in the 1920s. Mame's son, who became a tireless investigator for the cause, gathered his mother's correspondence -- which was extensive -- and mined them for references to her bookstore. A couple of days later a FedEx package arrived on my doorstep containing copies of letters from 1928 to 1930. I dug in.

"I am really becoming a collector of old and rare books," Mame's looping scrawl declares in one letter. In another, she refers to the Lamar Book Shop, which closed when the depression hit Houston in 1930. Maudie, in a letter to Mame, figured that "things seem to be livening up at the bookstore." Even a suggestive mention of décor made it into correspondence, with Mame's mother assuring her that she hung "the six flags of Texas on the walls above the bookshelves."

Did Historiae Romanae once rest under the lone stars? Inventory lists from the store have evidently not survived, but a box of books that the host found after his mother's death contain titles that sound conspicuously rare bookish. A 1920 copy of Wilde's Salome, a 1926 edition of Benito Cereno, and a signed copy of Siegfried Sassoon's The Heart's Journey were collecting dust in Mame's attic. All were published in London, and, to me, they all seemed like the right kind of company for Historiae Romanae.

But how would the book have moved from New York to Houston? In the course of reading through his mother's letters, the host learned something he had never known about her: Mame had briefly attended Barnard College in 1926. This fact conveniently placed her on the Upper West Side, if only for a few months, in the very crucible of the Unites States' rare book exchange. I returned to her letters to confirm that, indeed, Mame began to express her interest in book scouting while she was living in New York.

This left me with the London-New York connection. After a long afternoon of scanning microfilmed auction ads in a mildewed library basement, I took an antacid and opted for the journalistic approach: I'd just ask an expert. I drove to the Detering Book Gallery in Houston, which specializes in first editions. I approached an employee and explained my quest.

"I know exactly who you should talk to," he said.


"Yeah, sure ... Chester Doby."

I asked for his number.

"Small problem," he said.

"What's that?"

"Phone's been disconnected. He died last January ... never wrote a thing down."

With that conversation, I threw in the towel. Which was fine. Too many coincidences were actually cohering into something of a seamless story. And given that the underlying motive behind my search was the hope that someday someone will walk into a closet and have a box of Vietnam letters come tumbling down, the last thing I really wanted was a seamless story. It goes against the historian's gut instincts, but ambiguity at least leaves a little room to dream. end story

James McWilliams teaches history at Southwest Texas State University. "Letter to Momma" appears in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (Holt, 2000).

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Oscar Wilde, Merlin Holland, Rupert Hart-Davis, Morgan Library, Letter to Momma

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