Making Oscar Wilde, by Michèle Mendelssohn, Oxford University Press, 368 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0198802365.
After decades of attention to Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trials and his incarnation of the homosexual subject, a spate of recent publications reconsiders his 1882 American lecture tour, among them David Friedman’s Wilde in America (2014), Roy Morris Jr’s Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America (2013), and Sharon Marcus’s “Salomé!! Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and the Drama of Celebrity” (2011). Editors Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst set the stage for this reappraisal by assembling the first complete and reliable record of Wilde’s interviews in Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews (2010). While these publications illuminate Wilde’s redefinition of Victorian masculinity, they also highlight his self-promotion, burgeoning celebrity, and vending of aestheticism before he became a gay icon. To this compendium, Michèle Mendelssohn adds an exciting new chapter, or one so old that it deserves fresh examination. She ponders coverage of the Irish aesthete Wilde, which harmonised with racist caricatures of black dandies in American minstrel shows and newspapers. Back in 1882, Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith’s Oscar Wilde Discovers America offered a whistle stop account of Wilde’s tour replete with historical magazine illustrations, reviews, and gossip, which frequently conflated aestheticism with race matters. A juxtaposition that seemed unremarkable and inoffensive in 1882 receives extensive scholarly elaboration in Mendelssohn’s fascinating book.
The backstory of Wilde’s American venture requires fleshing out, as it was the turning point in the career of a celebrity fabulist. Friedman and Morris contend that Wilde became a household name on the lecture circuit. Mendelssohn waffles, implying that his star was ascendant before he embarked. At the same time, she credits the cartoonist George Du Maurier with catapulting Wilde from B-list celebrity into prominence. It is clarifying to think of Wilde as a protean figure bent on adapting to the cultural and social climate in his bid for renown, be it ivied Oxford, an American mining camp, Walt Whitman or Jefferson Davis’s parlor. It is generally accepted that Wilde first emerged from obscurity in 1877. As a twenty-two-year-old Oxford undergraduate, Wilde achieved instantaneous notoriety by appearing at the inaugural exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery in a trompe l’oeil coat designed to look like a cello from behind. Anticipating the surrealist-provocateur Salvador Dalí, who in 1934 disembarked in New York harbor waving a giant baguette at journalists, Wilde followed his antic self-promotion with some genuine work.
Wilde’s undergraduate review-article for Dublin University Magazine, praising the Pre-Raphaelite pictures on display at the Grosvenor, was one of his earliest publications. Wilde graduated from Oxford with double-firsts in modern and classical literatures; he won his university’s prestigious Newdigate medal in English verse for his poem “Ravenna” (1878). Wilde had few real job prospects when he settled in London in 1879. He published his first volume of poetry in 1881. “Charmides”, a poem about a sailor who ravishes a statue of Athena, raised critics’ hackles for its derivativeness and indecency. Punch disparaged the “poet-singer” Wilde as “Swinburne and Water”. In contrast, “The New Helen”, dedicated to actress Lily Langtry, brought Wilde heterosexual notoriety as a devoted admirer of the professional beauty. In a mark of the close affinity between these budding celebrities’ image consciousness, Langtry changed the spelling of her name from “Lillie” to “Lily” after John Everett Millais’s A Jersey Lily (1878) caught the public’s fancy. Advising Langtry to try her luck on the stage, Wilde endorsed her desire for celebrity; he was not making love to her. Coincidentally, they would meet on American shores in 1882, after an American impresario arranged a theatrical tour for the novice actress.
Unlike those of the Jersey Lily, Wilde’s theatrical ambitions were frustrated early on. He failed to stage his privately printed play Vera; or the Nihilists (1880) in London. (Vera eventually debuted in New York and folded within a week in 1883.) Despite his notoriety, the fledgling writer and future editor of The Woman’s World made his initial mark in London as a clotheshorse, ladies’ man, and chatterer pilloried in the popular press:
And many a maiden will mutter,
When Oscar looms large on her sight,
“He’s quite too consummately utter,
As well as too utterly quite”
This jingle supports the notion that Wilde’s verbal affectations (“utterly too too”) and aesthetic proselytising had reached a wide audience by 1881, despite the tepid response to his Poems: “The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame.” Through showmanship and editorialising, Wilde fashioned himself into the heir apparent to the Grosvenor exhibitors in the cultural imaginary. He had help. Du Maurier began immortalising aesthetic dilettantism in a series of satirical cartoons that predated Wilde’s arrival in London; however, his protagonists – the languid poet-poseur Jellaby Postlethwaite, protégé of the aesthetic painter and humbug Maudle, and the aesthetic don Prigsby – were altered to look more like Wilde over the years. Introducing a “life imitates art” paradox worthy of Wilde himself, Mendelssohn claims that Du Maurier’s caricatures were modelled on Wilde, yet helped Wilde fashion his public persona. I prefer to think of Du Maurier’s protagonists as composite figures. Harry Quilter’s influential article “The New Renaissance; or, the Gospel of Intensity” (1880) blamed a trio of Oxford men with a track record of publication or exhibition success – the poet Swinburne, the critic Walter Pater and the painter Edward Burne-Jones – for leading the public into mazes of medievalism and morbid affectation. Wilde did not figure in Quilter’s jeremiad, even though Du Maurier’s caricatures did.
Judging by the cartoons, plays and exhibitions produced in 1881, it was a banner year for critiques of aestheticism. Punch editor FC Burnand tried his hand at aesthetic parody in the dramatic farce The Colonel. Burnand’s sensible protagonist admires the “decorative Art poet, [William] Morris” but sharply reproves the fictional Lambert Streyke, a cash-strapped aesthetic poet who proclaims “aloud to a dull, material world the worship of the Lily and the Peacock Feather”. Next at bat, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience; or Bunthorne’s Bride superseded Burnand’s play in raves and revenues. Wilde biographer Richard Ellmann is responsible for the misconception that Patience was chiefly a burlesque of Wilde. Wilde was certainly a plausible model for the “ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical, Out-of-the-way young man!” Reginald Bunthorne. With his accoutrements – lilies and sunflowers, velvet breeches, patent-leather slippers and long hair – Wilde inspired the costumes for the English premier of the show. Having little genuine work to his credit, latecomer Wilde was the personification of aesthetic self-promotion and posturing skewered by librettist Gilbert. However, both Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor, an idyllic poet, called to mind Pre-Raphaelite enfant terrible Algernon Swinburne. Indeed, Swinburne’s infamous Poems and Ballads (1866), a succès de scandale, was the inspiration for Wilde’s theory that the only bad publicity was no publicity: “Somehow or other I’ll be famous,” Wilde wrote, “and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.”
Ellmann ignores the operetta’s allusions to the real labourers in the field, painters exhibiting at the “greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery”. In 1877, the Victorian art press praised the newly minted lion of the Grosvenor, Burne-Jones, for reinvigorating Pre-Raphaelitism’s tired portfolio and “re-asserting its claims to notice”. Founding members of what Gilbert styled “the Inner Brotherhood” (the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), Millais and William Holman Hunt, were also much in evidence. Though former PRB member Dante Gabriel Rossetti refused his invitation to exhibit at the Grosvenor, he vied at the antiquaries with Du Maurier crony Whistler for “blue-and-white and other kinds of pottery”. Awarded a farthing in damages following his post-Grosvenor libel suit against Ruskin in 1878, Whistler’s fortunes were in decline, but not his newsworthiness. He soon fell out with his acolyte Wilde, who copied the elder man’s foppish attire and barbed commentary.
Wilde’s genius for imitation rendered him highly visible – the Fabergé egg parented by the aesthetic chicken. Mendelssohn places too much credence in the idea that Pre-Raphaelitism was a dead letter in London awaiting Wilde’s revivifying personality. This thesis holds water on the other side of the Atlantic, where the Grosvenor Gallery was more of a rumour than a reality. Americans were easily persuaded that Wilde was the inspiration for Bunthorne. Still, they remained sharply divided over the question: were Wilde and Bunthorne charlatans or serious exponents of aestheticism? With the American premier of Patience looming, producer Richard D’Oyly Carte offered to sponsor Wilde’s fifty-date lecture tour. D’Oyly Carte hoped to drum up publicity for Patience and facilitate enjoyment by acquainting American philistines with the aesthetic canon. In consequence, the representative stock aesthete Wilde left London an understudy for the leaders of the aesthetic movement and returned from America a celebrity in his own right: “Fame would launch Wilde’s career,” as Friedman wryly observes, “not cap it.”
Mendelssohn describes Wilde at the outset of this enterprise, fresh from university, hoping to make a scholarly impression and secure a writing career. She is adept at parsing Wilde’s elation over his rare successes and despondency over his more frequent stumbles on the lecture circuit. After the initial fanfare of his New York debut, he had mixed success and then outright failure with diminishing ticket sales. Though he had not yet earned his critical bona fides, Mendelssohn bristles at his press coverage, which equated his extravagant self-display with the spectacle of the freak show. Her sympathetic portrait belies the contemporaneous image of Wilde as the man who would rather be infamous than a virtuous obscurity. Wilde’s private interviews with an ever-attentive press gave a boost to his flagging spirits. If he was secretly pleased, he feigned indifference when writing to Whistler: “My dear Jimmy, they are considering me seriously,” Wilde added. “What would you do if it happened to you?” Mendelssohn makes a compelling case that Wilde’s private conversations with journalists allowed him to hone his theatrical self-presentation and repartee, laying the groundwork for his brilliant plays.
Over the course of eleven months, Wilde delivered four distinct lectures on roughly one hundred and fifty separate occasions. Mendelssohn’s characterisation of “The English Renaissance” as “a long report – dry, detailed, and excruciatingly thorough” is dead on. Still, it minimises Wilde’s penchant for literary appropriation, even theft. “The English Renaissance” opened with a virtual transcription of Walter Pater’s preface to his 1873 bestseller:
I call it our English Renaissance because it is indeed a sort of new birth of the spirit of man, like the great Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century, in its desire for a more gracious and comely way of life, its passion for physical beauty, its exclusive attention to form, its seeking for new subjects for poetry, new forms of art, new intellectual and imaginative enjoyments.
To Pater enthusiasts, his former student’s lecture resembles SparkNotes for Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Wilde’s hints on “House Decoration” were lifted from Ruskin’s “Traffic”, where Yorkshire businessmen were roundly rebuked for having the bad manners to hire Ruskin to lecture on pleasing architectural styles, as if he were a tailor fitting them for a new suit of clothes. Wilde echoed Ruskin’s complaint that industrialists lived, worked, and worshipped among a hodgepodge of architectural styles: “When I appeared before you on a previous occasion, I had seen nothing of American art save the Doric columns and Corinthian chimney-pots visible on your Broadway and Fifth Avenue.” In fact, some Americans saw through Wilde’s pretense:
He has been instrumental in bringing about the art revival in England. But we all know better than that. He is a mere excrescence of the movement. Its real authors were workers like Eastlake, Morris, Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and Madox-Brown. Mr Wilde connects his name with their work apparently with no higher aim than self-glorification.
In short, Wilde was a latecomer rather than an originator. His precocity and verve have obscured the influence of his predecessors, from whom he borrowed ideas and catchphrases. His genius was to exploit the Victorian public’s appetite for aesthetic personalities, marketing his personality and style rather than substantive accomplishments. In Professions of Taste (1990), Jonathan Freedman calls Wilde “the first literary figure who consciously sought to make his career by publicising himself in and then writing for the new mass-circulation newspapers and women’s magazines of the 1880’s and early 1890’s”. The plays, essays, and novel for which Wilde is justly celebrated belong to the tail end of his tragically abbreviated career.
At the same time, the controversies arising from his challenge to conventional gender norms through his aesthetic costumes, declarations, and bearing at the podium were a major cultural event, disseminated in press reports of his speeches and the social whirl greeting his advent as well as the ninety-eight interviews published during his tour. Mendelssohn is particularly effective when documenting the commercial exploitation of Wilde’s fame in visual media: trade cards circulated by advertisers, newspaper cartoons, and reproductions of Napoleon Sarony’s recherché photographs of the poet. As in England, Wilde was initially perceived as a ladykiller of legendary proportions – a Victorian Errol Flynn ambushed by groupies gathered outside his hotels. Illustrated by the resounding success of the popular song “Oscar Dear!”, American women were “agog” over the author of “Charmides”. Mendelssohn explains that the American edition of Wilde’s Poems was unexpurgated and included passages the British publisher found too risqué: “Ye who have learned who Eros is, – O listen yet a-while.” Wilde’s American publisher took advantage of his “white-hot fame tinged with shadiness”; the first and second editions of Poems quickly sold out.
It is important to clarify, as Mendelssohn does, that queer history’s iconic figure struck contemporaries as a paradoxical combination of effeteness and masculine charisma. Still, a reader could wish for a more careful parsing of the shades of romantic friendship, homoeroticism, and what the Victorians considered sodomy than the remark, “Wilde’s homosexuality was still a secret.” Wilde met his first lover and friend-to-the-end Robbie Ross in 1886. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn suggests that Wilde was a self-aware homosexual in the company of tortured peers. It is not always clear when romantic friendship signalled personal cognisance of homosexuality for Victorians. Mendelssohn argues that Wilde and his Oxford friend James Rennell Rodd mutually embraced the typical tropes (Greek love) through which Victorian men described their forbidden feelings for one another. Having promised to find an American publisher for Rodd’s Songs in the South, Wilde changed the title to Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf, replaced Rodd’s dedication to his father with an encomium to himself, and added a thirty-page preface called L’Envoi. Wilde dressed Rodd’s poetry in his own aesthetic costume, promoting his brand. Mendelssohn depicts Rodd in the throes of homosexual panic, because he was mortified by the dedication: “To Oscar Wilde – ‘heart’s brother!’” and the scandal the volume occasioned.
Mendelssohn calls L’Envoi an original manifesto marking a departure from Wilde’s indebtedness to Ruskin’s precepts and those of the PRB. Describing L’Envoi as a “declaration by the leader of a band of aesthetic brothers in arms”, Mendelssohn underscores the “rhetoric of heroic, martial masculinity” mustered in the war against philistinism. Mendelssohn is keen to display Wilde’s originality of mind, but this rhetoric of military monasticism and pederastic transmission of knowledge was surely borrowed from Pater’s ruminations on Karl Müller’s The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race. In his fictional battles with Philistines, Wilde’s proxies, dandies like Lord Henry and Dorian Gray, bear no resemblance to Spartan youth.
Mendelssohn connects this military rhetoric with Wilde’s contretemps with a succession of military men, from his wily manager Colonel WF Morse, to rival lecturer and war correspondent Archibald Forbes, to his most severe critic, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who led a black regiment during the Civil War and later edited Emily Dickinson’s poems. Wilde’s budding intimacy with William Henry Hurlbert, a Harvard contemporary of Higginson’s, inspired jealousy then outrage on Higginson’s part. Mary Warner Blanchard deserves full marks for mining this relationship for indications of unconscious homosexuality and gender anxiety in Oscar Wilde’s America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age (1998). Higginson retained his attachment to the darkly handsome (like a “picturesque Oriental”) friend of his youth, but grew increasingly conflicted about unmanly aestheticism in later years. Savaging Wilde in “Unmanly Manhood” (1882), Higginson attacked his performative masculinity and even Whitman’s account of his tender ministrations to wounded soldiers in Drum-Taps (1865). Mendelssohn endorses Ellmann’s view that the term “aesthete” was used as a code for “homosexual”. It seems a bit premature in 1882 to credit puritanical Americans with knowledge of European sexology. Certainly, there was hostility to gender and sexual anomalousness, which informed the internalised homophobia of men like Higginson.
Mendelssohn’s most original insights and research pertain to Wilde’s American reception rather than to his self-fashioning. The American backlash against an Irish aesthete impersonating an English gentleman exposed fault lines in national, ethnic and class identity. Nineteenth century cultural anthropology and scientific racism sought (and fabricated) empirical evidence that the family of man was divided into unrelated branches. Victorian racial hierarchies placed fair-skinned people at the top of the evolutionary pyramid and accorded liberal criminal propensities and intellectual inferiority to the poor, the enslaved, and the colonised. From the pulpit to the academy, the wretched of the earth were held responsible for their own poverty. In the 1790s, the first wave of Irish immigrants to America was comprised of farmers, artisans, and tradesman; between the Great Famine of 1845 and the 1880s, the millions of Irish who made America their home were preponderantly employed as labourers. In the 1850s, the Irish moved into poor black districts in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and New Orleans, amalgamating as well as competing with blacks for jobs. Though antebellum Irish opposition to abolition was legion, it was not self-evident to nativists and anti-Catholics that the Irish had a purchase in whiteness. Indeed, the appellation “smoked Irish” was disparaging to blacks; “white niggers” disparaging to the Irish. The close affinity between black and Irish in the cultural imaginary fuelled hostility between the two camps; yet, proximity also explained Irish ascendancy in blackface minstrelsy. As Eric Lott points out in Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993), low-Irish comedy types popular at the British music hall were incorporated into minstrel characterisations, as were Irish music, dance, and even brogue. Blackface was a classic example of racial-ethnic conflation, where ethnic stereotypes, Paddy and Jim Crow, flourished.
Although Irish-Americans would achieve economic success and political power by the close of the nineteenth century, Paddy the drunken pauper was a mainstay of xenophobic propaganda; the “Irish Frankenstein”, a “bloodthirsty creature of simian appearance”, showed up in Punch whenever Irish farmers rallied against the abuses of English landlords. American opinion was shaped by coverage of the Fenian Movement during the Irish Land War (starting in 1878). The once popular Irish-American Charles Stewart Parnell was imprisoned from 1881 to 1882 following the Phoenix Park murders (of the chief secretary for Ireland). As Mendelssohn amply demonstrates, Wilde’s “nuanced position as Irish by birth and British by choice was taken as an equivocation”. It failed to satisfy Americans of Anglo-Saxon stock. It infuriated Irish-American proponents of Home Rule. It is fascinating to learn how Wilde dealt with this dilemma. He ignored the Irish question and passed himself off as an English aesthete until a St Patrick’s Day address, “Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century”, delivered before an enthusiastic audience in St Paul Minnesota. In San Francisco, another Irish enclave, Wilde espoused Home Rule and ventriloquised his mother Sperenza’s Young Ireland fervor and radicalism in a lecture, “Irish Poets of ’48”. Wilde told the San Francisco Examiner that his “career would have been a political one” had he remained in Ireland.
The questions engendering this significant study sprang from Mendelssohn’s encounter with parodies of Wilde in black body drag. Respectable publications such as Harper’s Weekly printed vicious caricatures of him while the Washington Post compared him to the recently discovered Wild Man of Borneo. Apart from the pun on Wilde’s name, this joke should have fallen flat. But Wilde’s powers of self-invention were no match for the biases of the Eastern press. As Mendelssohn shows, his brush with American racism exacerbated his white supremacist views. Wilde travelled seven hundred miles to pay his respects to the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. He publicised the fact that his maternal uncle owned a plantation before the Civil War. He encouraged the sons of the Confederacy to view the dispossessed Irish nobility through the lens of their own Lost Cause mythology. However, for Southerners and other Americans, his refinement, posturing, and passing for English were easily confounded with the aspirations of blacks.
Mendelssohn’s lavishly detailed account of the minstrel productions inspired by Wilde’s tour (the gender-bending Patience Wilde; or Ten Sisters of Oscar and blackface spinoffs like Black Patience) foreground the problematic figure of the black dandy. Fears of passing and miscegenation made popular “Dandy Jim”, “Long Tail Blue”, and “Zip Coon”, fancy men whose pretensions to equality of dress, education and social standing were ruthlessly mocked on the American minstrel stage. On two occasions, student-led spectacles featuring black aesthetes interrupted Oscar’s addresses. A colourful trade card memorialised the incident at the University of Rochester. Its central figure bore a striking resemblance to a young Frederick Douglass, if Douglass dressed like a dandy and spoke gibberish. Set in a black church, this caricature of Rochester’s famous orator implied that public speaking was no more elevated than the aim of selling varnish for stove blacking. Scorning black achievement, the advertisement told blacks “if you’re white you’re right, if you’re black get on back” ‑ to the kitchen. Douglass’s riveting personal narrative – “Written by Himself” – threatened white supremacy. Similarly, Wilde’s anglicised diction allowed him to pass for English. The American cultural imaginary insisted that difference be inherent, immutable and legible.
Ironically, white disdain for ethnic minorities enhanced rather than stifled cultural appropriation. PT Barnum fell afoul of convention when he discovered a brilliant black dancer of “negro break-downs” and put him on the stage. Knowing that nineteenth century white audiences would not pay to watch a black perform, Barnum greased the boy’s face, covered it with cork blacking, and made him wear a wig. Wilde’s adventures in cultural appropriation were just as devious. For him, African Americans were synonymous with riddles and menial chores, as his playful allusions to Christy minstrelsy and slavery attest. Victorian reviewers of Wilde’s brilliant society comedies recognised the structure (interlocutor posing conundrums to a line-up of society types) and “Christy-Minstrel epigrammatic dialogue” of A Woman of No Importance. Borrowing plots from French melodramas and humour from the minstrel show, Wilde straddled the divide between innovator and imitator, gradually winning renown for his theatrical alchemy. In his concluding act, his trial and imprisonment for gross indecency, his dramatic monologue on “the love that dare not speak its name” made him the preeminent Victorian advocate for homosexual rights.
Mendelssohn is to be commended for her extensive archival research and comprehensive knowledge of the life and times of Oscar Wilde. Her enthralling narrative is studded with anecdotes gleaned from original research. Occasionally, the surfeit of detail overwhelms even the serious reader’s grasp of her argument. And while she considers the wider cultural import of nineteenth century understandings of homosexuality and racial science, she occasionally contracts the scope of her investigation to personalities and relationships, an approach that is more anecdotal than systematic.
Wendy Graham teaches British and American literature at Vassar College and is the author of Critics, Coteries, and Pre-Raphaelite Celebrity (Columbia UP 2017).