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The Black Diaries

To the Editors:

Colm Tóibín’s claim [NYR, May 27] that only homosexual readers and writers fully understand Roger Casement’s Black Diaries leads him into dangerous waters.

First, he distinguishes between readers of one sexual “persuasion” or another, a term used in Ireland to denote religious or sectarian disagreement. This conflictual note is sustained throughout his review. Jeffrey Dudgeon is commended for seeing the diaries as—in part at least—“an anticipatory erotic aid.” However, when the point is systematically made in Roger Casement in Death, Tóibín regards it as “a new Casement heresy” [sic].

For orthodoxy, Tóibín claims “W.B. Yeats in 1936 became convinced that the diaries were forgeries….” As I have attempted to show in my book, Yeats was both more guarded and more opportunistic. In 1916, he had not signed the public petition for clemency. The controversy in 1936 usefully aligned him with Irish republicans when Catholic opinion broadly was hostile to his Abbey Theatre and Academy of Letters. Privately Yeats hoped (or half-hoped) the diaries would be proven authentic and Casement established as homosexual, conclusions the poet could take in his stride.

The focus in 1936 was The Forged Casement Diaries, by the New York–based W.J. Maloney. Yeats declined to contribute an introduction to the book, as indeed did G.B. Shaw and Eamon De Valera also decline. A Scottish-born crippled survivor of the Dardanelles, Maloney was regarded as a British agent by the Irish-American veteran John Devoy. For this reason or some other, Maloney’s backers employed threats of murder and blackmail to suppress any public denial of forgery. One would not know from Colm Tóibín’s review in The New York Review that the Casement enigma was largely devised in New York, and that Dr. Maloney thought his book would appeal in Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Instead, we meet a thoroughly unhistorical Casement.

If no gentleman is a hero to his valet, this was doubly true of Casement, whose Norwegian (homosexual) valet betrayed his whereabouts to the British in 1914. Casement’s doubtful claim to the title of gentleman—he had some of the pedigree, none of the education, little of the social experience—affected his professional career. When Tóibín writes that Casement’s time as a British consul “had not endeared him to Britain or its government,” one wonders if the sentence should not be turned on its head. For Casement’s heart-of-darkness years did not endear Britain to him as he observed the woeful effects of colonialism; this disillusion fed his latent Irish nationalism. Tóibín’s preferred reading generates a preordained victim, rather than the actual and naturally limited resister.

Similar problems affect the claim that “Casement was personally [sic] responsible for the decision of the Foreign Office in London to take diplomatic action, at times faltering,…against Belgian cruelty in the Congo.” Inside the Foreign Office, Casement possessed no such authority, nor could he personally (as distinct from professionally) have achieved this effect. He played an important part in the coalition of lobbyists and protesters, outside and inside the British Establishment. But only a part.

Confusion of the part with the whole is central to Tóibín’s mode of argument. Thus, Dudgeon’s edition of Casement’s diaries is “perhaps the most complete and interesting so far,” though Dudgeon frankly describes the texts as abridged. What has been omitted is essentially the non(homo)- sexual material. That is to say, much that is political and personal (but nonsexual) is gone, so as to get the controversial stuff into print. Nobody could quarrel with that declared selectivity in itself. And (as Tóibín acknowledges) Dudgeon’s commentary is invaluable. But if “the abridged” is happily taken as “the most complete,” where do we stand as editors, as upholders of the scrupulous and tolerant understanding of texts?

Tóibín’s preference for an exclusively (homo)sexual hero lies parallel with that of the Dublin-based Roger Casement Foundation who want an exclusively political one. Tóibín’s view is by far the more sophisticated, but there is more common ground than either can find comfortable. If it were acceptable that heterosexuals can contribute to an understanding of documents written by Casement, then at least those parallel lines would run in opposite directions. The benefits may interest the historian more than the novelist, but they are worth seeking at this time of heroic crusader politics and massively distorted rhetoric.

W.J. McCormack
University College Dublin Press
Dublin, Republic of Ireland

Colm Tóibín replies:

W.J. McCormack is mistaken when he writes that I claim that only homosexual readers and writers can fully understand Roger Casement’s Black Diaries. In my review I specifically commended the work of the two editors of the 1903 Diaries, who happened to be heterosexual. Their work, I wrote, was judicious and meticulous.

There is a great difference between Jeffrey Dudgeon’s assertion that some of the diary entries were “anticipatory erotic aids,” which I take to mean that they anticipated events which Casement genuinely believed were going to happen, and McCormack’s view that some of the diary entries were invented. The second of these I believe is a heresy (and I use the word lightly). McCormack, however, like many heretics before him, may even turn out to be right. It is hard to be certain.

I do not agree that the Casement enigma “was largely devised in New York.” McCormack’s book focuses mainly on W.J. Maloney and the events of 1936, twenty years after Casement’s execution. While this is interesting, much of it seemed to me quite peripheral to the essential story of Casement and his legacy.

I stated that Jeffrey Dudgeon’s edition of the Casement diaries is “perhaps the most complete and interesting so far” for an obvious reason. It is the only book which includes any of the 1911 Diaries. It also has extracts from the other diaries as well. No other single volume contains this range of material.

McCormack’s statement that I have a preference for an exclusively (homo)sexual hero is also mistaken. My review dealt at some length with Casement’s work as a humanitarian in the Congo and the Amazon. McCormack himself acknowledges this in his argument with me about whether the impulse was personal or professional. In writing about Casement’s work for human rights, it is often difficult to disentangle the two.

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