Declaring His Genius
In his 1882 lecture tour of the US and Canada, Irish wit Oscar Wilde let his clothing and set design do half the work.
(Page 2 of 2)
In Salt Lake City, “The Herald reporter thought Wilde had recited his words like a rote-learned schoolboy ‘without the slightest recollection of what he had to say. He seemed to take no interest whatever in his remarks, for his eyes wandered about and seemed as indifferent as a man could be. He was an enthusiast without enthusiasm.’” So maybe he was no actor, but he was a phenomenon nonetheless, and at his performances, he let his clothing and set design do half the work. In Missouri, a newspaper hooted: “Oscar Wilde, the long-haired what-is-it, has finally reached Kansas City, and the aesthetic noodles and blue china nincompoops are in the seventh heaven of happiness.” For a photo-shoot in New York, “Wilde wore a variety of costumes, sporting his green fur-trimmed overcoat and purple velvet suit in some, and knee breeches and black silk stockings over patent-leather pumps in others.”Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The talks he gave, as published later, are not much fun; for Wilde, they’re rather staid, the jokes coming few and far between. He was almost dead serious about interior decorating: “On the subject of home decoration, he was blunt, bemoaning ‘ill-looking rooms in ill-built houses, furnished with blood-curdling evidences of barbarism in the shape of machine rosewood furniture and black-leaded stoves.’”
Morris is an experienced biographer, always readable, but here he’s never so captivated or delighted by his subject that he can stand back and allow Wilde to charm us for more than a few lines at a time before cutting him off. It’s like watching a mediocre director under-use a dynamic star. We know what Wilde’s going to become and what he can be, but as the year unwinds, Morris and Wilde, though venturing from New York to San Francisco to Alabama to Montreal to Prince Edward Island, seem to be standing in place.
Morris has a disconcerting tic in that whenever he mentions anybody Wilde runs into, we learn the coincidental biography of that person. It’s like reading a Wikipedia article where Morris has clicked on all the highlighted names and references. If your biographical subject is the wittiest man of the 19th century, why not keep him front and center? Everyone else in Wilde’s life at this time is playing a bit part.
Morris notes that Wilde “jokingly threatened to write a book about his American experiences,” and would that he had! He only completed a few humorous essays about it. An unmediated compendium of Wilde’s letters to his agent, his family and friends, with clippings from the numerous interviews he gave, would probably be more fun and worthy than what Morris has provided.
To what can I compare my letdown, my disappointment that Morris’s Oscar is too tame? Wilde, in his “Impressions of America,” sighs: “I was disappointed with Niagara – most people must be disappointed with Niagara. Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life.”