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 five years he died in Paris, destitute and in exile. The twin locales of “Oxford” and “prison” give us Wilde the artist and intellectual, on the one hand, and Wilde the queer outcast, on the other. Even after more than a century, these two flashpoints continue to dominate Wilde biography and scholarship.
Michèle Mendelssohn’s new biography, Making Oscar Wilde, discards this familiar template for Wilde’s life, achievement, and cultural resonance. Instead, she principally concentrates on Wilde’s emergence as a transatlantic celebrity during his extensive and lucrative lecture tour of the United States (and Canada) in 1882. This shift of focus to another decisive period in Wilde’s life and career poses two broadly consequential questions about the Irish writer. First, to paraphrase Mendelssohn, what happens to our view of him if we attend primarily to the “transformative events of 1882 [that] would divide his life sharply into Before and After”? Second, what happens if we re-examine Wilde’s life through the prism of nineteenth-century American culture? Answers to these questions take up the greater part of Mendelssohn’s enlightening and provocative study.
When Oscar Wilde arrived in New York on January 2, 1882, he is reputed to have announced, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” Although this remark is apocryphal, it became legend long before it was recorded in print. The quip presents Wilde as remarkably self-assured, even arrogant, and this was an image that the youthful advocate of art for art’s sake was eager to promote. Having published only the volume Poems by this point, he was relying, in making his claims to “genius,” mainly on a talent for attracting attention. A quotable and opinionated dandy, Wilde assiduously cultivated celebrity in an era that witnessed the emergence of a truly global mass culture. Because his early fame depended on the singular accomplishment of being famous, Oscar Wilde could be ranked as the first modern celebrity. But to many in Britain, Wilde was merely notorious, and notoriously silly at that. His proto-campy style seemed to invite the satire that made his name a household word. British parodies of Aestheticism saturated a variety of media, from George du Maurier’s popular caricatures of pretentious arty types in Punch magazine to the commercial West End stage. Gilbert and Sullivan’s hit operetta Patience, for instance, featured aesthetes whose distinctive argot and exaggerated fashions strongly recalled Wilde. In 1882, however, American audiences had seen relatively little of this. In an era in which the United States still imported a good deal of its popular culture from across the Atlantic, the Aesthetic movement’s high-art claims (to say nothing of exponents such as Wilde) represented something distinctly exotic. Cannily sensing an opportunity, the Gilbert and Sullivan impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte bankrolled Wilde’s lecture tour to show audiences a real aesthete, all the better to pack the seats where Patience was playing on tour. During this remarkable year, the parody and the original could seem indistinguishable. Indeed, for part of his travels Wilde and the Patience cast travelled in the same train.
Although Making Oscar Wilde retains the familiar image of Wilde as a pragmatic manipulator of the media in the early 1880s, the Oscar we meet at the beginning of Mendelssohn’s book is somewhat different. He is a vulnerable and earnest striver who was “terribly sincere about what he wanted to achieve” in his lectures on topics such as “The English Renaissance” (as he called the Aesthetic movement) and “The House Beautiful” (in which he theorized home decorating). “Crammed with practical decoration advice,” this most popular among his lectures advised the fashionable homeowner to banish “so-called works of art that are unpunished crimes.” “The House Beautiful” not only excoriated the unoriginality and bad taste that Wilde felt afflicted American homes; it also afforded him a high-minded riposte to his critics. “Rather than attacking his imitators directly,” Mendelssohn observes, “Wilde made an impassioned argument against the fakes that cheapened home life.”
Despite appearing in an outlandish costume complete with pumps and knee breeches, Wilde really meant what he said. His lectures, which ranged from the philosophical sources of Aestheticism to its practical applications, advocated a subjective and romantic devotion to art and the cultivation of personal taste. In them, Wilde exuded the reformist zeal of an evangelist. For Mendelssohn, Wilde was also far from being confidently and fully in control of his image while on tour. The twenty-seven-year-old, she asserts, was “a young man in thrall to his managers’ hype and dazzled by the speed of his own transformation.” She charts the “making” of Oscar Wilde as a celebrity first and foremost, and persuasively argues that his fame was predicated on his immersion in, and engagement with, two particularly American cultural forms: the journalistic interview (Mendelssohn startlingly reveals that 95 percent of the interviews that Wilde ever gave took place in “one American annus mirabilis”), and the blackface minstrel show. The latter was a popular and pervasive form of entertainment on both sides of the Atlantic, and it would prove an adaptable medium for mocking the lecturer. Both forms, Mendelssohn further argues, would crucially exert an influence on his drama.
Making Oscar Wilde is a lavishly illustrated book, and its methodology exemplifies Mendelssohn’s characterization of scholarship in the present day as “the Golden Age of the Archive.” The book recovers and analyzes overlooked historical narratives and images, and in synthesizing them Mendelssohn forges some unexpected and illuminating connections. As a son of Dublin’s Anglo-Irish Protestant ruling class who was brought down by an epochal sex scandal, and a writer of plays populated by aristocratically fierce women and fey men, Oscar Wilde is, for modern readers, generally defined by the categories of class, gender, and sexuality. Although her Wilde is not without his manifold paradoxes—“he wanted to be English, [but] he had no wish not to be Irish. Shrewdly, he chose to be both,” she observes—Mendelssohn productively outlines the shaping effects of race and ethnicity, in American contexts, on Wilde and his subsequent literary production. Wilde’s tour, Mendelssohn shows, was dominated by representations of difference. Although he spoke with an English accent, Wilde proudly proclaimed his Irishness—an affiliation widely vilified in the U.S. In caricature, advertising, and performance, however, Wilde tended to be aligned with blackness.
Nineteenth-century America refashioned the Wildean spectacle of difference in its own image, and often in grotesquely racist terms. This focus, which dovetails with the turn in Victorian studies heralded by Daniel Hack’s Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature (2016), yields some instructive results. As Mendelssohn details, blackface minstrelsy and satirical/racist depictions of African Americans broadly structured the response to Wilde’s persona and message. Race became the measure and method for how to represent (and deride) the departure from convention that Wilde embodied, and he emerges here as an intersectional figure, shuttling between disparaged categories. The Irish lecturer was parodied in racial terms all over the country in both print and performance, and his “affiliation with blackness would become stronger as his tour progressed”: there was even a sendup of Patience called Black Patience, which mocked Wilde by incorporating blackface and drag. Although Wilde’s personal reaction to this racist mockery proves elusive in Mendelssohn’s account (was he offended? did he laugh it off?), the impact on him of American cultures of popular performance nonetheless stands out as compelling and original.
The substantive middle section of Mendelssohn’s book, which covers the lecture tour, culminates in Wilde’s contradiction-riddled visit to the region he called the “beautiful, passionate, ruined South.” However susceptible he was to the romantic, white-supremacist mythology of the Southern “lost cause,” in his interactions with (white) Southerners Wilde also insistently linked their alienation to a cause closer to his own heart: Irish home rule. His response to the South, like many of Wilde’s publicly enunciated affinities, was as Mendelssohn cogently puts it, “tactical.” Her assiduous research debunks a legend circulated by nineteenth-century purveyors of “fake news” that Wilde witnessed a lynching in Louisiana, and records his refusal to travel—without his African American valet—in a segregated train. (Whether that refusal can be ascribed to principle or class privilege is left up to the reader to decide.) At the same time, she spares us neither the uncomfortable history of Wilde’s slave-owning Confederate uncle Judge John Kingsbury Elgee, nor of his sycophantic visit to the former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Meeting American celebrities, no matter their politics (he had also visited Walt Whitman), was simply part of the aesthete’s itinerary.
For me, as a book and theatre historian, some of the most fascinating revelations in Making Oscar Wilde are those that pertain to his writing. Mendelssohn makes a compelling case for re-evaluating the early (and ignored) essay “L’Envoi” (1882) as a preview of the cultural criticism that Wilde developed in the more famous writings collected in Intentions (1891). The requirement to respond to interviewers’ questions in a snappy and memorable way, Mendelssohn further argues, “mold[ed] the dialogue in his plays and criticism,” and so inspired his characteristically aphoristic style. And the standard practices of minstrel performance, which often featured a lineup of characters onstage making witty and irreverent remarks, structured his plays in ways that were apparent to Victorian critics steeped in the generic conventions of minstrelsy, but are less so to audiences today. For example, in her bravura reading of A Woman of No Importance (1893), Mendelssohn picks up on the play’s borrowings from minstrel performances to show us how to identify jokes that we might not have known were even there. Even if Wilde didn’t invent the stage dandy—already a minstrelsy staple—he invested that figure with irony and cool detachment, thereby making it his own.
Making Oscar Wilde is a breezily paced and entertaining read, and throughout Mendelssohn’s style is refreshingly unstuffy. She is not above throwing shade on Aestheticism’s older generation, describing the poet Algernon Swinburne as “a drunk,” Wilde’s Oxford mentor Walter Pater as a “young fogey,” and (my favourite) his rival the painter James McNeill Whistler as a “frenemy.” Her candid tone reassures us that we aren’t going to miss the good stuff, as when we are told, “here is what really happened on Wilde’s first night in New York.” (Don’t get too excited; he was a terrible lecturer at first.) Previous accounts of Wilde’s American trip, such as Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith’s Oscar Wilde Discovers America, 1882 (1936) and Roy Morris Jr.’s Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America (2013) are, at core, mainly travelogues. While Mary Warner Blanchard’s Oscar Wilde’s America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age (1998) is more substantial, Mendelssohn’s is the first Wilde biography to assert the centrality of American culture to his formation as a thinker, an artist, a “spectacle-maker,” and ultimately as an Irishman.
Alas, the later and arguably more significant years of Wilde’s life (from 1883 until his death in 1900) receive relatively short shrift here, but I understand why. This book is about telling a relatively familiar story in a profoundly new way, and in order to do that, Mendelssohn needs to emphasize certain periods at the expense of others. As a biographer focusing on a single year, she has taken an approach that recalls the method of James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005). By turning her archival eye to historical representations of race and ethnicity, Mendelssohn also manages to give us an Oscar Wilde for our time. Even so, as a reader in and from Canada, I would have loved to have read in Making Oscar Wilde something (anything!) about Wilde’s side-trips into this country, but Queen Victoria’s Dominion merits nary a mention. Mendelssohn is herself a proud Montrealer, and Wilde spent the longest part of his visit to this country in that city, a place with its own lengthy and complex history of racial and ethnic tensions. Maybe there is another book on the horizon.