On new Oscar Wilde biography and old newspapers

Dublin-born writer Oscar Wilde in 1882 made a yearlong, coast-to-coast lecture tour of America. It’s the focus of a new book, Making Oscar Wilde, by Michèle Mendelssohn. In the Jan. 25 issue of America magazine, reviewer Jeffrey Myers says the author:

developed a new approach to biographical research. Vast online archives and databases provided a digital treasure trove of local newspapers in the obscure towns where Wilde had lectured that was unavailable to previous life-writers. Her innovative approach and exploration of unsuspected territory has yielded rich results, illuminating new aspects of Wilde’s life and afterlife.

Wilde, in 1882, the year of his U.S. tour.

Digitized database and online newspaper archives are fairly recent conveniences, to be sure. But the material was always there for earlier biographers; it just required more time, travel, and tribulation to dig from bound, clipped, or microfilmed editions of the old papers.

As a journalist, I once did this sort of thing all the time in what where called “morgues,” usually a musty back corner of the newsroom. It’s important to know the past, the back story, whether writing about today’s news developments or yesterday’s events.

The work can be tedious. In his Jan. 28 essay for The New Yorker, L.B.J. biographer Robert A. Caro recalls the advice he received from one of his early newspaper editors about doing investigative research; in Caro’s case, a cache of government records. “Turn every page,” the editor said. “Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page.”

Digital searching quickly and seductively whisks you to what the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software finds. But it may bypass misspellings; pages that are smudged and damaged; or relevant stories that don’t contain your search term(s).

Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland co-founder Felix Larkin addressed other concerns in our November 2018 interview:

Obviously, being able to search a digital newspaper archive makes the task easier, but there is a danger that it makes researchers lazy in two respects: first, they may be inclined to disregard newspapers and periodicals that have not yet been digitized and so fail to take account of important strands of opinion; and secondly, they may be content simply to find what it is that they are looking for and so miss other items – shall we call them the “unknown unknowns” (quoting Donald Rumsfeld) – that may be equally or more important.

I’ve been scrolling through microfilm of 1919 Chicago newspapers for a project I’ll unveil later this year. Seeing the surrounding headlines puts the Irish stories in wider context. And there are delightful distractions, such as following the game-by-game performance of Chicago baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson in the months before that year’s controversial World Series.

I have benefited from digital access to old newspapers since 2008, when I found the 1941 account of my Kerry-born grandfather’s death in Pittsburgh. It prompted me to write his biography. I am currently reading digitized 1919 editions of The Irish Press, Philadelphia; Kentucky Irish American, Louisville; and similar ethnic papers to explore U.S. reporting of Ireland’s revolutionary period.

But I still love viewing original records inside archives and libraries. The undigitized material forces me to turn every goddamn page; every … faded … page.

Irish-American files in the Thomas J. Shahan Papers at The American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

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