Oscar Wilde? Augustine Birrell? Lewis Morris? Fictional?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular anecdote about Oscar Wilde that is very funny, but it is also implausible in my opinion. The story claims that Wilde was speaking with a terrible poet who had recently published a book of verse. The rhymer complained that no one was reviewing his work. He felt it was being deliberately ignored.
“There is a conspiracy of silence against my book, Oscar. What should I do?”
“Join it,” replied Oscar.
This is a cleverly cutting remark, but I do not believe that Wilde would have been that cruel. In my readings he always seemed to be a gracious conversationalist, and he would not issue this type of direct insult to someone. Could you research this anecdote and quotation?
Quote Investigator: This is an intriguing question but it is not an easy one to probe. QI has located strong evidence that some people who knew Wilde and knew about this incident expressed an opinion similar to yours. Friends of Wilde tell a version in which he did not directly insult the target of this comical barb.
Yet, the earliest published reports of this episode located by QI depict Wilde delivering the quip during a face-to-face encounter with the poet. For example, the following version of the story appeared in a review called “The Critic” on October 13, 1894, and this account was widely disseminated in other reviews and journals during the next few years [TCCS]:
The Bookman tells an amusing story of Mr. Oscar Wilde and a certain poet, who shall be nameless. The bard complained to the aesthete that a book of his had been practically ignored by certain critics. “There is a conspiracy of silence against my book,” he said. “What should you do about it, if you were I?” “Join it,” was the answer.
A very different account was presented by a biographer of Wilde named Robert Harborough Sherard in “The Real Oscar Wilde” in 1916. In this version, the poet, identified as Lewis Morris, asks for advice from the statesman Augustine Birrell. At a later time Birrell communicates the query to Wilde who responds acerbically [ROCS]:
Apropos of conspiracies of silence, there is a frequently told anecdote that the poet, Lewis Morris, having complained to Oscar that there was a conspiracy of silence against him was promptly advised to join it. I never believed that Oscar Wilde would have said such a thing to a brother poet, because I never knew him wilfully to hurt anybody’s feelings, and for another thing, this particular poet was an eminently well-meaning if tedious personage, insufficiently popular to excite anybody’s hostility. That I was right in doubting the accuracy of this story was proved to me by the following statement made by Mr Augustine Birrell, the present Secretary for Ireland, in the course of a conversation he had with Mr Herbert Vivian, who was writing a series of interviews, or Studies in Personality for The Pall Mall Magazine.
Birrell had been talking about a conversation he had had with Winston Churchill and remarked that, in answer to something that Winston had said, “I scarcely knew what to say to him, but I was profoundly impressed by his manner and earnestness.” Hereupon Vivian said: “I should not think that you often found yourself at a loss for an answer.”
To this Birrell answered, with a smile: “That reminds me of a certain poet who came to me once upon a time and complained that his works were neglected. He said there was a conspiracy of silence. Of course I felt very sorry for him, but I was really puzzled what to say. I mentioned this to a well-known wit, who exclaimed quite angrily: ‘You did not know what to say! Do you really mean to tell me that you did not know what to say?’ ‘No, upon my word I did not.’ ‘Of course, you should have said: “A conspiracy of silence! My dear fellow, join it at once.”’”
Here are some additional citations in chronological order.
In 1894, in addition to the appearance in The Critic discussed above, the tale was printed in The Literary Era [LECS], The Literary World [LWCS], and The Outlook [TOCS], In 1895 the story was told in Current Literature [CLCS] and The Pacific Unitarian [PUCS]. Clearly, this version in which the poet was unidentified achieved wide currency.
In 1907 the anecdote was retold with another individual in the main role. Clyde Fitch was a popular and productive American playwright. He died at the young age of 44 having completed 33 original plays and multiple adaptations [OXCF] [CFLF]:
At a dinner given in his honor in New York not long ago, Clyde Fitch told of the advice he once gave an aspiring young novelist who worried him with his books. It appears that the embryo Fielding was better qualified to sell shoes than write novels. One day he came to Mr. Fitch in a great state of mind. He declared:
“No one will read my manuscripts. There is a conspiracy of silence against me.”
“Join it,” advised Mr. Fitch. — Saturday Evening Post.
In 1916 an alternative description of the anecdote was given in “The Real Oscar Wilde” as noted above. In 1922 the “Private Diaries of the Rt. Hon. Sir Algernon West” were published. This work recorded comments by Birrell that provided additional support for the narrative in “The Real Oscar Wilde” [PDCS]:
Dined at Asquith’s: Alfred Lytteltons, Birrells, J. Tennant, John Morley, my wife having been to see Oscar Wilde’s new play, A Woman of no Importance. It was discussed whether Oscar Wilde was really witty; Birrell contended he was, and gave this instance: He had met L. Morris, who said, “I have written a book, and not a paper nor a review has alluded to it. There is a conspiracy of silence.” “Directly after, I met Oscar Wilde and asked him what I ought to have said. ‘You should have said,’ answered Oscar Wilde: ‘My dear Morris, join it yourself.'”
In 1942 Edmund Fuller’s Thesaurus of Anecdotes presented a concise version of the tale similar to the one in 1894 with abbreviated dialog [EFCS]:
Sir Lewis Morris was complaining to Oscar Wilde about the neglect of his poems by the press. “It is a complete conspiracy of silence. What ought I to do, Oscar?”
“Join it,” replied Wilde.
In 2000 Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes printed an account revolving around a newly vacated position of poet laureate. Many different candidates were mentioned to fill the vacancy [BACS]:
Not included was that of the prolific poetaster Sir Lewis Morris. “It’s a complete conspiracy of silence against me,” Morris complained to Oscar Wilde.
“What ought I to do, Oscar?”
“Join it,” said Wilde.
In conclusion, QI finds the testimony of Robert Harborough Sherard and Algernon West plausible. QI believes Oscar Wilde crafted this witty chastisement, but did not mock Lewis Morris directly. In addition, it is possible that Clyde Fitch told the anecdote, and he may have used the punchline. But the story was already in circulation before 1907. Fitch knew Wilde and corresponded with him. Thanks for your question.
Update History: On September 25, 2012 the 1907 citation for Clyde Fitch was added to the article.
(Thanks to K.L.D. who left a comment mentioning the ascription to Clyde Fitch.)
[TCCS] 1894 October 13, The Critic, Number 660, The Lounger, Page 240, Column 2, The Critic Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[ROCS] The Real Oscar Wilde: To be used as a Supplement to, and in Illustration of “The Life of Oscar Wilde” by Robert Harborough Sherard, Pages 300-302, T. Werner Laurie, Ltd., London. (HathiTrust) link
[LECS] 1894 November, The Literary Era, Literary Notes, Page 263, Column 2, Porter & Coates, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link
[LWCS] 1894 November 3, The Literary World, News and Notes, Page 375, Column 2, E.H. Hames & Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link
[TOCS] 1894 November 10, The Outlook, Literary Notes, Page 763, Column 2, The Outlook Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[CLCS] 1895 January, Current Literature [Current Opinion], Brief Comment: Literary Sayings and Doings, Page 91, Column 1, Current Literature Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[PUCS] 1895 January, The Pacific Unitarian, Recreation, Page 91, Column 1, Pacific Unitarian Conference, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link
[CFLF] 1907 October 17, Life, Clyde Fitch’s Advice, Page 473, Published at the Life Office, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[OXCF] Oxford Reference Online, 2004,The Oxford Companion to American Theatre by Gerald Bordman, Thomas S. Hischak, Entry: [Clyde William Fitch (1865–1909), playwright], Oxford University Press. (Accessed September 25, 2012)
[PDCS] 1922, Private Diaries of the Rt. Hon. Sir Algernon West by Sir Algernon West, Edited by Horace G. Hutchinson, Pages 153-154, E.P. Dutton, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[EFCS] 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes by Edmund Fuller, Anecdote 1193, Page 207, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
[BACS] 2000, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes, General editors Clifton Fadiman and André Bernard, Oscar Wilde section, Page 574, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper)