OSCAR WILDE'S AMERICA by Mary Warner Blanchard

OSCAR WILDE'S AMERICA

Counterculture in the Gilded Age
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Wilde appears as less of a touchstone than an excuse in this bric-a-brac analysis of assorted marginal artistic fashions in 19th-century America. Whatever the long-term results were on the aesthetic movement of Wilde’s American lectures, which he delivered across the length and breadth of the country in 1882, they brought him a lot of mocking press and a great deal of money in the short run. Blanchard (Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis) notes that Wilde found a receptive audience that was ready to hear him on “The English Renaissance,” “The House Beautiful,” and “The Decorative Arts,” but she herself seems more interested in Wilde’s press clippings—in Wilde “the human objet d’art”--than in the substance of his popular lectures or, still less, in the ideas of Ruskin, Pater, and Morris which they embody. Though Wilde was hardly averse to publicity, contemporary press caricatures of his outlandish costume and affected manner provide little more than contemporary attitudes to masculinity and interior decoration, and they give to Blanchard’s discussion of the aesthetic movement’s influence in America and the “counter-culture” that embraced it very little beyond gauzy (and obvious) generalities. Looking at the aesthetic movement from the perspective of women, Blanchard portrays the disparate lives and careers of the designer Candace Wheeler, the poet Celia Thaxter, and the critic Mariana Van Rensselaer, who all worked within the wider spectrum of the decorative arts that flourished in the Gilded Age. The gaping gender fault lines in American attitudes toward art and artists that Blanchard analyzes unfortunately reduce themselves in her argument to hostile dialectics. The influential Arts & Crafts movement, for instance, is dismissed as merely “a vogue largely controlled and directed by men.” A tendentious and diffuse approach to Wilde’s dictum that “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” (illustrations)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-300-07460-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1998




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