Oscar Wilde in America

In his review of Roy Morris Jr.’s Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, Justin Beplate discusses Oscar Wilde’s trip to America, and the lasting effect that it had on his writing and personality. Here is an excerpt:

Wilde’s reception in America was uneven. If some were bemused by the colourful paraphernalia of aestheticism, others bristled at the suggestion that this export from Britain had anything to teach them about beauty and taste. Wilde was, by his own admission, a lame public speaker – but he was a born self-promoter. At a time when celebrity interviews were just beginning to take off in the US, Morris argues that ‘Wilde pioneered the way in which modern celebrities are created, cultivated, and commodified’. In his dealings with the press Wilde knew how to play the game, dispensing quotable copy and maintaining a genial air in the face of tiresomely repetitive questions. The same equanimity was extended to his hecklers, and many of those who came to jeer the ‘too too utterly utter’ spectacle of an overwrought fop in satin knee breeches with crushed velvet coat and green cravat found themselves disarmed by Wilde’s unflappable demeanour and genial good humour. It was less an ability to laugh at himself – his commitment to aestheticism was too sincere – than a willingness to deflect ridicule with humour, honed as the occasion required.

If America did not always know what to make of Wilde, the country was in many ways the making of him as an artist. He returned to England richer in pocket and, more importantly, in experience. The tour marked a divide between what Wilde himself designated ‘the Oscar of the first period’ (‘the gentleman who wore long hair and carried a sunflower down Piccadilly’) and what was to come. In the following decade Wilde would assiduously cultivate the Oscar of the second period, publishing the stories and plays that made him famous. His fall, when it came, was colossal. When The Importance of Being Earnest opened to wild acclaim on 14 February 1895, its author was the toast of London society. Less than two months later, having lost a disastrous libel claim against the 9th Marquess of Queensberry for imputations of homosexual conduct, Wilde was arrested on charges of gross indecency and later sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The physical and moral devastation of the trial and its fallout shattered him. Three years after his release, Wilde died as an impoverished and ignominious exile in Paris.

For the full review, visit bit.ly/ZQDWd6.

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