A fresh look at Oscar Wilde’s English, Irish, and American contexts.
As “gay history’s Christ figure,” Wilde (1854-1900) has been amply investigated by biographers and literary historians, but Mendelssohn (English/Oxford Univ.; Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture, 2007, etc.) was surprised by a discovery she made in a library archive: six small cards, each depicting Wilde with a different ethnicity: Irish, Chinese, French, German, black, and white American. In addition, she found a Currier and Ives poster of Wilde with brown skin, thick lips, and “spiky Afro hair.” The provocative images, she writes, inspired her quest “to solve the mystery of Wilde’s identity.” Although she claims that her research reveals a “secret life” unknown to previous writers, in fact much of Mendelssohn’s entertaining study conveys a familiar portrait of the ambitious aesthete: his “larger-than-life parents,” Sir William, a renowned oculist, and his eccentric wife, Jane; Wilde’s experiences at Oxford, where he hosted “exotic” soirees in his college rooms and won honors for his intellectual prowess; his literary reputation as a poet and playwright; his exhausting American tour; marriage and fatherhood; and his precipitous downfall, which led to incarceration in Reading Gaol. Mendelssohn’s contribution to Wilde’s legacy is her fresh look at the American tour, providing social and cultural context that helps to explain the mystery of the disconcerting images. In 1882, Wilde disembarked in New York into a swirling eddy of assumptions about race, class, and gender. The foppish 27-year-old generated curiosity—sometimes cruel—about his manliness. His lectures, which at first were “painful,” the New York Times reported, invited parodies. His unscrupulous manager promoted him as if he were one of P.T. Barnum’s freaks, and the press mounted “degrading attacks,” such as caricaturing him as “Mr Wild of Borneo,” an image of Wilde as “a negrified Paddy.” Blackface minstrelsy, a hugely popular form of entertainment, lampooned him. The Currier and Ives poster, Mendelssohn concludes, reflected the inseparable connection of “Negrophobia and Celtophobia” in 19th-century America.
A familiar biography embedded in a lively cultural history.