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'Wilde in America' follows Oscar Wilde through his self-promotional US tour

Oscar Wilde didn't come to the US to learn about Americans. He wanted them to learn about him.

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    Wilde in America:
    Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity,
    by David M. Friedman
    W. W. Norton & Co.,
    320 pp.
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A publicity stunt brought Oscar Wilde to America in 1882. Gilbert and Sullivan’s new musical "Patience" was parodying London’s “aesthetes” (of whom Wilde was one), so the producer’s plan was for Wilde to go prepare the States for the ridiculousness of such artsy and trendy young men. Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity is the story, however, of how Wilde would use the 11-month tour to make himself rather than the musical famous, how he amused and courted newspaper reporters, and how, loved or despised, he became a household name in the English-speaking world.

“Other Europeans … had toured our country before Wilde," writes Friedman. "But they came to learn about America; Wilde came so America could learn about him. Meeting his audiences in an impossible-to-ignore ensemble – satin breeches, black silk stockings, silver-buckled pumps, and a snug velvet coat with lace trim – Wilde sold himself to the American public as a ‘Professor of Aesthetics,’ a title for which he had no authentic certification, in roughly 140 lectures (most of them on interior decorating) that brought him face to face with farmers, poets, socialites, preachers, factory workers, prospectors, prostitutes, southern belles, Harvard intellectuals, and, if a newspaper account is accurate, a detachment of Texas Rangers who bestowed upon him the rank of colonel.”

The 27-year-old Irishman wasn’t yet married or actively homosexual. He wasn’t yet the important author of what I’d call the funniest play in English ("The Importance of Being Earnest"). The former Trinity College and Oxford University undergraduate, a pupil of the great John Ruskin, was, when he left for America, only semi-famous in England for his witty remarks in high society.

Roy Morris, Jr., tackled the same subject less than two years ago in his book "Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America". But Friedman’s book is superior on all counts to Morris’s, which bogged down in Wikipedia-like reflex references. Friedman is savvy and strong-minded; he enjoys and for the most part admires Wilde’s genius for publicity. Friedman always keeps the amazing soon-to-be dazzling author in the forefront, even as a thesis about celebrity drives the narrative forward: “He drew the first map of this heretofore unexplored territory [‘the Republic of Celebrity’] in 1882, charting his pilgrim’s progress from one hotel suite to another, as he talked his way to stardom.” Wilde, though he had never lectured and only learned on the job, discovered what all good teachers know: “the importance of amusing himself as a means of retaining his focus.”

The Wilde that Oscar created for the press was indeed the witty and wise man he really was: “ ‘Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.’” This “veritable bon mot machine” charmed the great and famous (among them, our celebrity poet, Walt Whitman, and former President Ulysses S. Grant) and many of the tens of thousands who heard him lecture and some of the millions who read one of the more than 500 articles about him produced by American newspapers that year or saw his image from some of the marvelous photographs he had posed for in New York at the beginning of his tour used in advertisements. Not surprisingly, given his flamboyance, he alarmed some folks (including former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and the novelist Henry James) and was sometimes mocked in articles and cartoons. From someone Americans had never heard of, however, the Irishman became the second-most famous British citizen in the States, only Queen Victoria topping him.

Indefatigable, he visited mines in Colorado, a prison in Nebraska, and opium dens in San Francisco. With the advice and examples of friends like Whitman and the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, he mastered the art of celebrity by controlling the question-and-answer format, which, Friedman points out, was at the time a genre peculiar to American newspapers: “he never forgot that, no matter what the question, the purpose of the answer was to increase the fame of Oscar Wilde.” 

Wilde literally set the stage for the eager reporters who interviewed him in his hotel rooms: “When the journalist arrived, Wilde would nearly always be lounging on a sofa, reading a book of poetry (usually, but not always, his own), near a table upon which the remnants of a recently partaken multicourse meal were in evidence on fine china.... Upon the back of the sofa where he was musing and digesting, the journalists would see animal skins, embroidered fabrics, and other decorative items Wilde had brought with him from his flat in London, so that he could beautify his temporary surroundings in America and make them more palatable to his elevated European sensibility.”

While admiring Wilde and usually delighting in him, Friedman reminds us that Wilde’s self-made stardom brought him also, at the height of his fame in 1895, his notoriety. Whether it was his hubris or simply a favor to his beloved but conniving boyfriend Alfred Douglas, Wilde sued Douglas’s father for libel, essentially for having accused Wilde of homosexuality.

At the trial, Wilde poured on the wit: “What Wilde didn’t understand was that he was the author of his own lines at his trials, but only those lines. He was in a drama, not a comedy, where the ending would be written by someone else – no matter how well he spoke. He thought his celebrity made him invincible. He was wrong.” The trial led to his degrading two-year prison sentence and probably contributed to his early death in 1900. Friedman muses: “Fame makes you a star, but it also makes you a target. This is well understood today, in the age of the Internet snark, but it was not widely appreciated in the late nineteenth century.... The culture of celebrity he brought to life rose up to take his.”

That sad coda is of less prominence in this swift, fascinating chronicle than the remarkable and comic year that Wilde spent amusing America and himself.

Bob Blaisdell and his daughter Odette Blaisdell edited "The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde" (Dover).

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