Oscar Wilde was both an aficionado and a practitioner of literary crime. Most notoriously, his 1886 notes for a lecture on Thomas Chatterton are largely plagiarized from two biographies about the poet. Wilde's plagiarism and self-plagiarism have formerly been understood as coded expressions of nonliterary transgressions, as roundabout forms of self-promotion, and as the result of the time pressures of a professional writer. In this essay I propose that we understand Wilde's fascination with and commission of literary crime not only in light of his professed socialism but also through his well-known preference for talk over writing. By appropriating, recirculating, and donating language within literary circles, Wilde set up within a private print culture the lineaments of primary orality that he had encountered through his parents' ethnographic studies of the nonliterate rural Irish. In promulgating these oral dynamics of circulation, Wilde helped construct primary orality as the irrecuperable other of literate culture. But he also participated in a growing counterdiscourse to private literary-property law, particularly the conventions of individual and serial ownership proper to copyright, that were becoming consolidated in late-Victorian England. While the Chatterton lecture notes work partly to consecrate literary crime as a creative act, Wilde's story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." (1889) warns that when ideas circulate like private property, they lose the power to unite their holders in a shared belief.
- Copyright 2000 The Regents of the University of California