The Pirated Oscar Wilde

Reading Dee Brown’s entertaining Wondrous Times on the Frontier recently, I came across a mention of Oscar Wilde, who while touring the United States in 1882, met a boy on a train who was selling pirated editions of a “slight book of poems” he had recently published. Wilde was, of course, indignant, but according to the account seems to have made a sort of peace with the boy who later gave him some oranges as a gift. Wilde was evidently much less chagrined at the potential loss of income than at the shoddy quality of the printing job. Digging for more on this incident I came across an article from the New York Times, July 23, 1883, recounting a lecture that Wilde had given in London. The article has a slightly different account:

He talked of himself in his ‘Impressions of America’ as if he were illustrious there and here, over and over again he spoke of himself as ‘the poet’. He saw a boy selling his ‘pirated poems’ at 10 cents. The boy offered him pea-nuts, but he could not think of buying pea-nuts from a boy who was selling a pirated edition of his poems. So the vendor of pea-nuts said: ‘Do buy, I have never sold to a poet yet.’

This made me wonder whether there are collectors of pirated 19th century editions of the works of “great authors” out there, especially editions released more or less contemporaneously with the original. A bit more research told me that Wilde’s pirated editions do show up in his bibliographies and are mentioned here and there elsewhere. A quick check of online booksellers shows that pirated editions of his books list from around twenty dollars to the thousand dollar range. One copy of Wilde’s Ravenna, listed at over eight hundred dollars, was described as the “First pirated edition.”

Pirated editions of 19th century books say a lot more to me than do first editions. If a book was pirated to any great extent then we’re dealing with a book that really had some sort of effect on the public at large. The fact that copies of Wilde’s poems were selling for a dime a copy, not a dollar, meant that they were meant for a general audience, not the educated elite. Granted, many of the people that purchased these volumes might not have been lovers of poetry, but perhaps they were lovers of spectacle, and by all accounts Wilde’s visit to North America was a bit of a spectacle. The existence of these pirated editions in the United States as early as 1882 doesn’t mean that Oscar Wilde’s writing had much, if any, effect on the country at large at that early date, but it does hint that perhaps the very spirit of his character did.

–Stephen Lee Canner