The Americanization of Oscar Wilde

The early days of a modern celebrity

In “De Profundis,” the ­harrowing chronicle of his imprisonment, Oscar Wilde memorably identifies the two “great turning points” of his life. They are, he says, “when my father sent me to Oxford, and when Society sent me to prison.” Most biographical and critical assessments of the legendary Victorian writer follow his own lead by emphasizing these moments, and with good reason. It was at Oxford in the 1870s that Wilde encountered Walter Pater and John Ruskin, on whose philosophies he first molded his personal brand of Aestheticism. And later, in 1895, his trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency” with other men marked not only a personal but also a cultural turning point. With his conviction, one of the world’s foundational and enduring images of gay male identity was forged in a spectacle of homophobic state power. Wilde’s plays on the London stage were forced to close, his books fell out of print, and within...