Wilde in America; Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity

Wilde in America; Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity by David Friedman. W.W. Norton, 2014.

David Friedman covers one year in Oscar Wilde’s career, his tour of North America in 1882. The title makes it sound as though Wilde in America gave birth to our thriving celebrity culture. What we learn is how Wilde and his press agent cultivated opportunities available at the time. Like those present-day celebrities who crowd our grocery checkout counters, Wilde and the company that arranged his tour were hoping to create fame.  And in Wilde’s case, this was years before the literary works which made him famous.  As Friedman puts it, fame would launch Wilde’s career, not cap it.

His sponsors had sent him to America to give a series of lectures and test the waters for Patience, a Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera. It had been a success in London and they hoped for an American repeat.  But its producers wondered whether the theme of the comic opera, competition between two proponents of the aesthetic movement, would resonate in the U.S. The lyricist, W.S. Gilbert, had been inspired by watching Wilde fashion a notoriety out of ‘performing,’ in elaborate outfits, at gatherings of London’s literati.

Wilde was mindful of the importance of generating public attention with press interviews. The press interview was already a well-established phenomenon. (Here and elsewhere Friedman gives Wilde too much credit as an innovator.) In Wilde’s year touring America, he granted some 100 interviews. They were scheduled for late morning and held in his hotel room (always the most expensive in town), on a ‘set’ of Wilde’s contrivance.

He was the master of the clever, witty remark. Some of his quips were originals, a product of his quick-wittedness. Many were borrowed, stories that he had heard, then transformed as necessary, and used in his interviews and lectures.

He made good money. Halfway through his tour, Wilde had already earned $129,000 in present-day dollars. While his east-coast appearances had been pre-arranged and the auditoriums booked, the rest of the tour took form after his arrival. He accepted an invitation to visit California for three weeks and was paid $117,000 for that segment of the tour. Like other speakers on tour, he traveled – always by train – to many a cultural backwater, and to an audience that had never heard of the aesthetic movement. Remember that this was 1882. And although he did not always fill the hall in such places as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City, he did get their attention.

He was moderately well received in Galveston, though there were several rowdy boys who tried to disrupt his lecture. He told his audience that he had the authority to arrest them, having been made an honorary colonel of the Texas Rangers. Laughter followed; it had worked. He didn’t take offense; the disruptions usually won him sympathy in the local press. (Back in England when he retold this story, he elevated his honorary rank to a general of the Texas Rangers.)

April 1, 1882 he spoke to the Bohemian Club in San Francisco. Its members, not reverential and in a trickster mood, contrived to get Wilde and themselves drunk when he joined them for lunch. So they plied him with tumblers of whiskey. They retired sloshed. Wilde, a big man, could hold his liquor and walked away still sober.

Throughout David Friedman’s book, one is struck by the bad manners of those Americans that Wilde encountered on his tour. But then he wasn’t always careful of their American pride. You can imagine the uproar when he said that he was disappointed with Niagara Falls, “bulk but not beauty.” In Chicago he had the nerve to make derogatory remarks about its famed Water Tower. In Salt Lake City he claimed that the Mormon Tabernacle was “the most purely dreadful building” he had ever seen.

Many of the photographs included in Wilde in America were taken by a New York celebrity photographer, Napoleon Sarony. Normally celebrities charged photographers a sitting fee, which Wilde had waved. In return he intended to remain in control of his image. For that reason he brought to Sarony’s studio various outfits and props. The two of them spent a whole day together contriving poses.  Wilde had been good at creating personas for live audiences; here was a new medium. Sarony later claimed that it was he who had invented Oscar Wilde.

Wilde, son of two Irish nationalists, had a hankering for “lost causes,” including the Confederacy, still around in the form of Jim Crow. In Slidell, Louisiana he witnessed the lynching of an African-American preacher accused of assaulting a white woman. He was given a tour of the French Quarter in New Orleans by the Confederate General Pierre Beauregard and later entertained by Ex-President Jefferson Davis at home in Biloxi, Mississippi.

David Friedman’s account of Wilde’s tour is also a journey through 1880s’ America, with commentary by an observant tourist.


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