If you’ve read Richard Ellmann’s absorbing 1987 biography, Oscar Wilde, you may feel you never have to read another book on St. Oscar. That was my feeling before picking up Michèle Mendelssohn‘s recent study, Making Oscar Wilde. I found her book nothing short of thrilling — a highlight of my reading life this year.
Mendelssohn had at her touch digital resources that earlier biographers lacked; her scope is much narrower than Ellmann’s. She focuses on a brief but important part of Wilde’s life: 1882 to 1883, when the emerging writer and celebrity embarked on a lecture tour of North America. Initially, he delivered a presentation on “The English Renaissance” (i.e., the aesthetic movement), but he later branched out to speak on such topics as “The House Beautiful,” “The Domestic Arts” and “Irish Poets and Poetry of the 19th Century.” This tour came before The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, before Wilde married and fathered two sons and — of course — long before the affair with Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas that would shutter his career and shatter his life.
It struck me that the years in question are peculiar in that they’re post-Darwinian but pre-Freudian (1882 marked the death of Charles Darwin and the beginning of Sigmund Freud’s medical career). At this time, the ramifications of evolutionary theory fascinated Britons and Americans. As Mendelssohn points out, the public took special interest in the idea of a “missing link” between simians and humans. Fascination with such puzzles informed people’s thoughts on race. This was a time when minstrel shows and freak shows (featuring “specimens” from “primitive” cultures) were part and parcel of popular entertainment. Public interest in the scientific examination of personality and sexuality, on the other hand, was still mostly yet to blossom. (The term “homosexuality,” for instance, had only been coined a little more than a decade before Wilde set sail.)
The author centers Making Oscar Wilde largely on issues of race and ethnicity and how they impacted Wilde’s career. Only in his late twenties at the time of the American tour, he was, paradoxically, an Irishman who favored home rule yet thought of himself primarily as English. Throughout his time studying at Oxford, he’d been viewed as something of an outsider because of his heritage, although this didn’t much hamper his rising career. Yet, when the man from Dublin emerged as a sunflower-carrying aesthete who aimed to civilize civilization, it caused both excitement and dismay. And as Wilde gained fame and became a matinee idol of sorts, his Irishness was often conflated with Blackness, especially in America, where Irish immigrants and Blacks were seen as grasping the lowest rungs of the post–Civil War social ladder. On both sides of the Atlantic, caricatures of Wilde in the press, in advertising and in popular entertainment repeatedly depicted him as a Black dandy — or as a white dandy adored by Black women.
The most famous caricature of all did not have an overt racial component, but it played a huge role in Wilde’s career and public profile on both continents. This was the character of Bunthorne in W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s operetta Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride, which premiered in London in 1881. And who would produce Wilde’s American tour but Richard D’Oyly Carte, the impresario who kept the whole Gilbert and Sullivan franchise running. In NYC (the first stop of the tour), Wilde’s pushy road manager, Colonel William Francis Morse, arranged to have Wilde invade an American performance of Patience — a two-birds-one-stone move that created buzz both for the operetta and for the upcoming NYC lectures. As Mendelssohn describes the scene:
When Bunthorne walked on stage, Wilde announced loudly, “this is one of the compliments that mediocrity pays to those who are not mediocre.” The entire audience turned to look at him.
Part of the excitement of this book comes from the energy Mendelssohn brings to the description of the tour itself. The narrative in Making Oscar Wilde would make for a splendid cinematic road trip. After an awkward debut in NYC, Wilde, along with his Black valet, journeyed to such diverse places as California (Wilde described it as “a very Italy without its art”); Leadville, CO (where he was dropped by bucket to the bottom of a mine to indulge in a drinking game with rough-and-tumble miners); and Louisiana (where a white supremacist uncle of his had planted himself before the war). Gradually, Wilde lost patience with the puppeteer mentality of Morse, who seemed perfectly happy to promote the lectures by subjecting the lecturer to ridicule, and took more control of his brand. He experienced an epiphany in Philadelphia, where he had a private interview with Walt Whitman:
[Wilde] admired Whitman because he had dared to publish “the drama of a human soul,” because he had gone “on record” about his true feelings. That qualified Whitman as a personal hero.”
It’s in Mendelssohn’s chapters describing the Southern leg of the tour that the Wildean image takes some hits. Despite — or maybe because of — the Irish-Black conflation, Wilde harbored some animus against African Americans. There was even a rumor that he attended a lynching. Mendelssohn quickly and convincingly dismisses that as a hoax. On the other hand, she explains that one of Wilde’s chief goals during his Southern sojourn was to meet Jefferson Davis. Upon doing so, he found that the Confederate leader couldn’t be bothered with him. Oscar nevertheless retained romantic notions about the “lost cause” Confederacy, which he somehow found analogous to British-dominated Ireland. But, as Mendelssohn notes:
The intricacies of his pro-Confederate positioning eluded many Americans…. For the most part they continued to equate his Irishness with blackness and to show their distaste in poisonous ways.
The last chapters of Making Oscar Wilde describe how the American tour served Wilde as he began writing the stage comedies that would give him lasting literary currency. Mendelssohn contends that Wilde gained confidence as a writer and showman while stateside. But there are racial (and racist) dimensions even in this development. For A Woman of No Importance, Wilde borrowed heavily from the conventions of minstrelsy, arranging his characters seated in a line patterned after that in which the end-men and interlocutor were customarily positioned in blackface entertainments. By keeping characters frozen in place, explains Mendelssohn, “Wilde made sure that his audience would concentrate on the conversation — which was where his talents lay.”
Mendelssohn writes in a style that is a mix of the scholarly and the contemporarily colloquial. She peppers her prose with contemporary terms (“soundbite,” “comb-over,” “glass ceiling,” “frenemy”) that are anachronistic to the story but help to give it freshness and immediacy.
At one point, she even compares single-gloved Wilde with Michael Jackson. It seems an odd juxtaposition at first. But the more you consider it, the more you can imagine two flamboyant souls traveling together along the same slippery road to superstardom, and on to doom.