Wilde, Whitman, and the Gay Literary Style


Oscar Wilde in America. N. Sarony, 1882. George Eastman House Collection. Courtesy of ARTstore Digital Library.

"His purple interludes are at once reminiscent of Oscar Wild and Frank Harris. He is not, of course as Wilde as Oscar but neither is he, on the other hand, as Frank as Harris, though if sufficiently Harrised he might go Wilde." ––Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, July 12, 1930.[1]

"A little Whitman goes a long way with me." ––Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, April 9, 1944


Leo Adams always believed that his letters were worth preserving, but perhaps not always for the same reasons as his friend Merle Macbain. As a young man, Adams had some minor literary ambitions and he was susceptible to the encouragements of his friend Merle Macbain––a writer, magazine editor, and amateur poet with strong literary opinions. It is clear from Macbain's first letter in the collection that Leo Adams had written to him from New York several times since arriving. But it is not until after receiving the letter from Macbain quoted below that Adams began to place carbon paper between the sheets in his typewriter and archive copies of his outgoing letters. Here is what Macbain wrote:


I presume that you are by this time so bloated with prosperity and so well poised upon the peak of a general sense of well being that you have relegated artistic aspirations to the limbo of childish fancy and decided to confine your writing to the endorsing of checks. Your letters convince me that you could write a fairly interesting style if you tried and I suggest you try to write and sell something while you are in New York.[2]


Leo Adams, "The Hermit of the Shelton" Page 1

Adams responded gratefully:


I appreciate the correspondence which you have directed at me. I also appreciate your deliberate thrust that my letters indicate “I could write a fairly interesting style”. That jeweled thought is one of the most treasured gems in my chest of Woolworth possessions. Why, some day, I’ll bet you’ll be selling these letters for my autograph.[3]


When Adams started making carbon copies of his letters he may have been thinking that they might someday enter the historical record––whenever that history finally got written––but that's not what he said at the time. He was creating a literary corpus at least as consciously as he was preserving a historical record and his letters are as "amusing and informative" today as they were to his friends at the time. His style is certainly not "modern"; he got his poetry from the newspapers and The New Yorker rather than modernist organs like The Dial or Harriet Monroe's Poetry. His writing, with its self-conscious deployment of wit, aphorism, and irony, demonstrates the continued influence of Oscar Wilde and the European fin-de-siècle among gay men of the period in defiance of modernism's injunction to "make it new."


Leo Adams, "The Hermit of the Shelton" Page 2

There is an example in a story fragment enclosed with a letter to Merle Macbain dated January 2, 1932. The story,"The Hermit of the Shelton," narrates an imaginary episode in Adams's life at the residential hotel he lived in from to 1931 to 1947. His narrator has placed a classified ad in the Times seeking "A young man who will enjoy listening to the radio evenings." His advertisement produces "three love letters; two enthusiastic replies from colored people; and a circular from the Allerton [Adams's first address in New York], which has a radio in the lounge."[4] Inopportunely, Adams's radio breaks down and, in the following passage, Adams responds to a neighbor who has offered him advice on how to find a radio repairman:


"Won't the fact that they have advertised for work of this character indicate that they are making extraordinary efforts to get it; that they are on the lookout for something just like this? I would rather have more disinterested service."[5]


One can almost hear the imperious voice of Lady Bracknell admonishing her nephew Algernon in Adams's Wildean paradox.


Adams to Macbain 3/8/31 pg.1


Adams to Macbain 3/8/31 pg.2


Adams to Macbain 3/8/31 pg.3

  1. Leo Adams Papers, New York Public Library. Hereafter cited by name and date only.
  2. Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, October 26, 1928.
  3. Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, December 15, 1928.
  4. Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, January 2, 1932.
  5. Leo Adams, "The Hermit of the Shelton" (unpublished), Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, January 2, 1932