Jeffrey Meyers. In January , a still little known year-old called Oscar Wilde began his year-long, coast-to-coast, 15,mile grueling lecture tour throughout America. The real motive was to advertise himself and become a celebrity while searching for his true sexual identity. Victorian men had to hide their homosexuality, but Wilde found a way to flaunt his real feelings.
Oscar Wilde - Interviews and Recollections Volume I | E.H. Mikhail | Palgrave Macmillan
Wearing a theatrical costume while behaving outrageously on stage, he used his ambiguous sexuality to provide entertainment. Marriage in and two sons with sissy names Cyril and Vyvyan as well as male lovers Robbie Ross in and Lord Alfred Douglas in were still in the future. He fell in love with an attractive woman, but discovered that his deepest erotic yearnings were for men. Wilde was better known for his wit than for his arty-smarty lectures.
His life was a long-running, one-man show, written by and starring himself. 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. He was Irish and English, an ass but clever, womanly and manly, aesthetic and athletic.
In this, he foreshadowed modern American writers whose flamboyant personalities attracted readers to their books: Hemingway, Mailer and the defiant homosexuals Gore Vidal and Truman Capote. While trying to solve it, she found a new approach to biographical research, and material that was unavailable to previous life-writers. Vast online archives and databases provided a digital treasure house of local newspapers in the obscure towns where Wilde lectured. Her book includes 48 illuminating plates and shocking-pink endpapers. But the tiny-print, coarse-paper, tightly-bound book has narrow inside margins and is hard to hold open.
It is also densely packed with facts and wobbly with digressions. Waves of poor Irish immigrants were at the bottom of white society, and recently freed slaves were crushed beneath the Irish. Whitman, a dandy and expert at self-promotion, had also created an attractive persona. But there was a great contrast in age and appearance between the precious fop and pretentious snob and the bearded and hearty man of the people.
I would have been about 13 or 14 at the time and the class took turns at reading the play aloud. I was amazed at its lightness, and at the sharp and consistently witty repartee of the dialogue, especially received, as it was, by a teenage ear recently accustomed the then esoteric texts of Shakespeare or George Eliot. It was a memory that stuck with me until I rediscovered Wilde's life and other works many years later.
Wilde was a prolific letter writer and over 1, of them survive in a collected edition. They are essentially the autobiography he never wrote. This is not to diminish any of his works - it's just that I feel that in the letters you get all the ingredients of great literature: character, incident, comedy, drama, tragedy, prose and poetry; plus, of course, his catastrophe and denouement. The walking tour was the spur but I wanted to build a definitive body of knowledge about a specific area of Wilde's life.
New York was the logical choice because I am resident nearby and Wilde spent a lot of time here, on a year-long lecture tour, a fact little known even in America. Ostensibly he was promoting the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that ironically was lampooning his school of thought.
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But he also had something to say, a talent for saying it, and someone prepared to pay him for saying it. Not really. I believe it was a formative period for Wilde, and well worth capturing, not only for the scholar, but for anyone interested a great period story. But successive biographers have recycled one or two familiar stories.
And there was one book now out-of-print that dealt anecdotally with the whole tour of America and Canada.
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But there is no definitive source book for the year-long lecture tour, and certainly no single account of Wilde's time in and around New York, where Wilde lived and to where he returned. I hope so. It has taken several years traversing leafy streets and dusty corridors to assemble the palette.
The canvas is growing however, as occasionally I unearth pieces that weren't in the picture before. Also there is the possibility of a new book on the subject in the near future. It was a mixed reception.
Wilde's arrival was much anticipated and from the moment he stepped off the boat he didn't disappoint. Wilde was received warmly by polite society, especially by ladies of fashion, and receptions and dinners were given in his honor. Conversely, he was subject to the ridicule of the press and the abuse of one or two paragons of Victorian virtue. Generally, people didn't know what to make of him, as he was, in many ways, ahead of his time. Most certainly. Wilde came with many letters of introduction and made friends of his own along the way; for example, he got along famously with Walt Whitman.
Many people went out of their way to make Wilde's visit enjoyable and he shared their homes in the city and at the shore in the summer.
Some friendships became quite lasting, particularly literary ones, and he had a lifelong association and respect for the pioneering New Yorker, Elisabeth Marbury, who was his agent in America. Well he and they wouldn't be the same today. He'd certainly be a television celebrity - as Wilde was formative in the realization of fame for its own sake. And I believe he would be immensely popular - for his still-quotable wit, and still-popular works. But the world is now used to a lot worse than Oscar, and his considerate and dignified personality would prevent him from generating the same vitriol or scandal today.
It was a time of enterprise and immigration; of gaslight and horse-drawn carriages; but mostly it was time of cultural and social change: the Brooklyn Bridge was being completed, Edison as introducing electric lights, elevators were being installed in buildings, and fortunes were being made in railroads, steel and oil by names still famous today.
But it was also a time of great poverty as well. But the gilded age was about to peak, and the growth of a commercial district downtown was to lead to a residential displacement of the wealthy. It was the beginning of the post-industrial era. He certainly had an impact at the time: there were articles about him in the newspapers, cartoons of him in the periodicals, advertising featuring him and even songs written about him.
He crucially influenced social and sexual diversity, and as New York has always prided itself on those traits, you could say that it is the city he has influenced the most. Unlike those you mention who made their names in, or before they came to, New York, Oscar was not established as a writer at the time of his visits. He was a fledgling artist trying to promote himself and his early plays, and his most famous works lay some way ahead.
So while Wilde was not a New York writer in any sense, I do believe he visited the city at a very formative time. It is interesting note however, that Wilde did not become a writer of any specific place, and unlike the New York school, was more eclectic. He cannot be labeled. His poetry relied heavily on Greek learning, but his early plays are set in Russia and Italy.
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