Indiana State University Newsroom

Oscar Wilde descendant helps Indiana State students with research

November 11, 2013

According to Merlin Holland, there are two types of researchers-nerds and scholars. The nerds know how to find facts. The scholars know that finding those facts is just the "beginning of a journey" to discover more information.

As the grandson of literary figure Oscar Wilde, Holland is no stranger to the "joys and perils" of research. The literary executor of his grandfather's works, Holland has spent the past 30 years separating fact from fiction in Wilde's life.

"Too much has been said about Oscar Wilde over the years which has been based on lousy research," Holland, a London native and Oxford graduate, said. "Bad research which is done too quickly, too sloppily and not constantly questioning all of the sources you come across."

Holland recently visited a class of honors students at Indiana State University who have spent the past semester researching Wilde's 1882 American lecture tour. During the symposium, students were able to discuss their individual research projects with Holland as well as learn about the importance of being a good researcher.

"Education is not simply learning about Oscar Wilde for the sake of it," Holland said. "I have a very strong belief in the fact, as indeed [Wilde] did, that education is a training of the mind and if you learn about research... it will stand you in good stead in whatever field of work you go into later on in life."

Each student chose one of Wilde's lecture stops to further research. They investigated any and all information they could find about his stay in that city including when and where he lectured, where he stayed, who he met and the public's opinion of him.

"[Wilde's] 1882 American lecture tour came very early in his career and is often overlooked, yet the experience clearly had an effect on him, right down to individual places he visited and people he met," Marilyn Bisch, instructor of language, literatures and linguistics, said.

Alina Thomas, a sophomore speech pathology major from Terre Haute, chose Decatur, Ill. as her city of research. She wanted to research Decatur because she wanted to learn more about the history of a friend's hometown. However, due to the "obscurity of Decatur," Thomas struggled to find information.

"[Decatur] is not mentioned in any of the books or articles, so I'm actually having to do a lot more [research] than I had originally thought," Thomas said.

The goal of this research project was to get students out of their comfort zone and seek information beyond what is available on Google. In addition to using scholarly journals and books, Bisch made it a mandatory part of the assignment for students order microfilm of 1882 newspapers from across the nation using inter-library loan.

"A great deal of valuable information is only available to us in print and manuscript form... learning how to research the ‘old-fashioned' way expands [student's] knowledge and ability to understand both the past and the present," Bisch said.

Wilde's 1882 lecture tour has gone largely undocumented and the information that has been published has many inconsistencies. Therefore, it is difficult for anyone to prove concrete facts about his time in America.

"Wilde gave more than 150 lectures in America from January to December 1882, but only a handful of these have been written about in any detail," Bisch said. "We can't simply go to Google or published biographies and find everything there is to know."

Holland is no stranger to the difficulties of piecing together the life of Wilde and has spent much of his life verifying and refuting information that has been published about his grandfather. He said favorite part of his work is "exploding bad research."

"The hypocrisy of putting out facts and telling stories which are based on conjecture, which itself is not good, does no help to understanding of Oscar Wilde," Holland said.

Although researching the life of Wilde has proven to be a "long and arduous" task, Holland thinks it is essential because Wilde's opinions and beliefs remain relevant in today's world.

"He is an extraordinarily modern person," Holland said.

The Oscar Wilde symposium is the second presentation the students have given this semester. In October, they traveled to Menomonie, Wis. and presented information about Wilde's time in Indiana and Wisconsin during the Mabel Tainter Theater's production of "The Importance of Being Ernest." They will give a final presentation on Dec. 6 in Cunningham Memorial Library.

"The most exciting part of our class has been the experiential learning," Bisch said.

Photo: - Merlin Holland and Indiana State University professor Marilyn Bisch talk with Alina Thomas about her research project concerning Holland's grandfather, literary figure Oscar Wilde. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Photo: - Merlin Holland presents to students about the importance of research during an Oscar Wilde symposium Nov. 4, 2013 at Indiana State University. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Contact: Marilyn Bisch, instructor, department of languages, literature and linguistics, Indiana State University, 812-237-8272 or

Writer: Emily Sturgess, media relations assistant, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3773 or