Frank Harris' biography of Oscar Wilde cannot be read as a simple historical document. Harris was not married to the truth; he frequently invents or embroiders, recasting conversations so that his part in them became more central, placing himself at events where he was not in fact present, and even recounting incidents that never happened at all. However, it would not be fair to discount it entirely. At the time it was written Wilde was regarded as a pariah, yet Harris never swerved from his view that Wilde's treatment by the public, press and the judiciary had been a monstrous injustice. Although he was repelled by homosexuality and considered it unnatural, he felt it was a weakness calling for sympathy, medicament and dissuasion rather than punishment. Moreover, the punishment meted out to Wilde was harsh and brutal beyond any reason, the prison system of the time being generally cruel, not just to unfortunates like Wilde, but young children guilty of nothing more than poverty and hunger.
The undoubted friendship between Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris is one of the stranger aspects of Harris' life. They were so unlike: Wilde the wit and aesthete, the darling of fashionable London, Harris playing the loud American, lecturing all within earshot about whatever they would least like to hear. And the fact they were both great talkers would, one might suppose, have led rather to rivalry than friendship. But as outsiders, exiles, perhaps there was a deeper common bond. In both, too, there was an idealistic streak, in Oscar's case it was beauty that he saw as the key to life, while Harris was an atheistic humanist who yet loved Jesus; if they failed to live up to their ideals then is that not the tragedy of us all?
In the end, Harris was generous to Wilde both in life and to his memory. He did not paint Wilde as a heroic figure, but Wilde was only intermittently heroic. If he did not convey much of Wilde's wit, that is documented well enough elsewhere, in Wilde's own works and the oft-told anecdotes of others.
You might want to read more about Harris and Wilde.
A brief note about editions
If you possibly can, I strongly urge you to get hold of any of the three 1930 editions of this book (Covici-Friede, Brentanos, Garden City - all New York). This is unique in that it has along with the main text all of the following:-
- The so-called "Confessions of Lord Alfred Douglas". In this, Douglas admitted that Wilde was guilty of homosexual acts and that they had had a physical relationship. This material, has as far as I know never been published in full anywhere else.
- "My Memories of Oscar Wilde" by Bernard Shaw. This is also found in other editions, though not the first of 1916. There is a marvellous conversation between Shaw and Harris carried out via Harris' footnotes and Shaw's notes to the footnotes.
- An appendix full of miscellaneous Wilde-related items of variable interest, including the suppressed parts of De Profundis (nowadays of course freely obtainable, but not at the time).
- Many footnotes throughout.
- An index, praise be.