An account of the notorious author’s American tour.
In 1882, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) set out for a yearlong American lecture tour, backed by Richard D’Oyly Carte, whose production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience had just opened in the United States. Because its central character parodied an aesthete—a social type unfamiliar to Americans—Carte surmised that putting the young man on display would pique interest and increase ticket sales. As Friedman (The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever, 2007, etc.) shows, Wilde was eager to comply. The 27-year-old, author of a single volume of poems that had garnered tepid reviews, lusted after fame. In London, he insinuated himself into circles of the rich and famous, convinced that stardust rubs off. An exhibitionist, he believed that “life is a performance,” and he enacted “an opera of opportunism” everywhere he went. Following Wilde through his American travels, Friedman focuses each chapter on one of Wilde’s revelations about how to become a celebrity: “Take Your Show on the Road,” “Build Your Brand,” “Work the Room,” “Strike a Pose,” “Celebrity is Contagious,” “The Subject is Always You,” “Promote is Just Another Word for Provoke,” “Keep Yourself Amused” and “Go Where You’re Wanted (and Even Where You’re Not)”—i.e., “bad publicity is still publicity.” These ideas overlap, as do the chapters themselves, which detail Wilde’s foppish sartorial choices, from shoulder-length hair to patent-leather shoes, and describe a multitude of receptions, train trips, and delivery of each lecture on beauty, home decoration or the English Renaissance. In some cities, fashionable people filled the halls, but Wilde faced half-empty rooms in places where his reputation for being “the sovereign of insufferables” preceded him. Several amusing anecdotes stand out, such as Wilde’s first meeting with Walt Whitman, himself “a self-taught genius at self-promotion.”
Although Friedman fashions a lively narrative, this book does not significantly embellish the already well-known image of the outrageous, self-aggrandizing Wilde.