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.

Declaring His Genius By Roy Morris Jr. Harvard University Press 264 pp.

Before he had written anything for which he is now famous, Oscar Wilde was already famous for being himself. He always had the nerve, talent, and wit to create in public the man he was and wanted to be, as depicted in this vignette from Roy Morris Jr.'s biography: “When a customs officer asked him if he had anything to declare, Wilde had supposedly replied, ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius.’”

The wittiest man in London was a leading tastemaker when, at the age of 27, he decided to go to America to promote a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and, more importantly and busily, to lecture on interior decorating. “Have nothing in your house that has not given pleasure to the man who made it and is not a pleasure to those who use it,” he instructed, echoing one of his mentors, the critic John Ruskin. “Have nothing in your house that is not useful or beautiful.”

As presented in Richard Ellmann’s 1988 biography, we were able to imagine the first three-quarters of Wilde’s life as a situation comedy. Born in Dublin in 1854, the son of amusing, high-society, Irish patriots, Wilde went on to Oxford (“My Irish accent is one of the many things I forgot at Oxford”), before making his splash in London drawing rooms. By 1882, Wilde had published a book of poems and written a couple of unremarkable plays, as he had not yet decided to become the funniest of English language playwrights.

Who else could have made up his mind to become a literary genius and accomplished it? There’s only one Oscar Wilde. But for all his brilliant showmanship, wrote one of his friends, “Those who have known him as I have since he was a child at my knee know that beneath the fantastic envelope in which his managers are circulating him there is a noble, earnest, kind and lovable man.”

In the dozen years after his return from his whirlwind 1882 tour that Roy Morris, Jr., covers in Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, Wilde married, had children, and became about the most renowned playwright of the century. Then, as he pushed both his luck and his idealistic confidence in justice, the roof caved in. After a series of ugly lawsuits, Wilde found himself jailed for two years for his homosexual relationship with one of the most abhorrent young men in literary history. At the age of 46, Wilde, broken and ill, died in Paris.

On his tour of the US and Canada, Wilde delivered 140 lectures; the one-man media sensation was sometimes a trooper and occasionally a prima donna. He addressed audiences of hundreds and of handfuls. He does not seem to have been a dynamic speaker, however, or to have made a special effort to engage his particular audiences. In Chicago, a journalist remarked, “Oscar spoke of the ‘beautiful in art,’ and the ‘joy in art,’ and it was all Greek to the men and women who listened to him.”

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.”

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.”

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