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Oscar Wilde in North America

by Roy Morris Jr.

Pub Date: Jan. 7th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-674-06696-0
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

A spirited account of the young Wilde’s inspiring 11-month tour of America.

Morris (Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain, 2010, etc.) chronicles a year in the life of Irish dandy and belletrist Wilde, who, at age 27, was bent on invading America the way Dickens had a generation before. An Oxford graduate, poet, student of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and enthusiastic and visible proponent of the aesthetic movement in England, Wilde was, by January 1882, when he arrived in New York, already famous, though few could say why. Wilde was a self-promoting genius, Morris writes, “created, cultivated and commodified,” like celebrities today. He hadn’t yet written his famous works or openly embraced gayness, but in his elaborate, precious outfits, sporting sunflowers and lilies, dropping affected bons mots for journalists to scoop up as he instructed American audiences with authority on “The Beautiful” and “The Artistic Character of the English Renaissance,” Wilde was challenging traditional notions of masculinity and also creating his celebrity. Morris goes step by step in this, drawing on Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst’s book of newspaper interviews Oscar Wilde in America (2010) for a record of his decidedly uneven reception, from rapturous audiences in New York, where Napoleon Sarony took his famous photographs of Wilde in various guises; to Chicago, where he insulted his Midwestern audience for their ugly waterworks; to Denver, San Francisco, the South and Canada. He met Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant and generated “verbal donnybrooks” all along the way. In the end, Wilde and America shared a mutual affection.

A fondly erudite look at a young, likable celebrity in the making.