Wilde in the Office

From LARB:

OscarFor those interested in, or like me obsessed with, anniversaries: this summer marks the quasquicentennial of Oscar Wilde’s first ever office job (fifty years to go before the dodransbicentennial and a century before the sestercentennial). Admittedly, the significance of the event pales in comparison with the centennial of the sinking of Titanic or the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, but Wilde’s experience in the office provides that curious anniversary where the writer, who wants the best of both worlds as a journalist and a serious author, can see in practice whether such a thing is possible or desirable. When he was 33 years old, Wilde began working for the publishing firm Cassell & Company for the duration of more than two years. His best non-fiction and fiction work was produced during the time he spent in the office at Ludgate Hill, near Fleet Street. In between May 18, 1887, when he signed the contract with Thomas Wemyss Reid, who was general manager of the company, and October 1889, when he was handed his notice, Wilde managed to write the most brilliant and lengthy of his essays, including “The Critic as Artist,” “The Decay of Lying,” “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” and “The Portrait of Mr W. H.,” a speculation on Shakespeare's Sonnets (which later became a favourite of Borges), not to mention The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is often considered Wilde's best work and the defining text of the late-Victorian age. It is difficult to imagine a serious author of our day performing a similar feat. Could Jonathan Franzen, that great enemy of superficial twittering, have written The Corrections while editing GQ, spending his weekdays in its offices? While numerous contemporary authors prefer unplugging the network cable from their laptops while writing, Wilde did the opposite thing and tried to have as many connections as possible, which he thought would contribute to his competence and inventiveness as an author.

Having toured the United States and parts of England during the early 1880s for a series of lectures about decoration, fashion, and applied arts, Wilde had amused American and British audiences with his personality and oratorical skills. When this great tour came to an end, he immediately looked for fame in prestigious literary magazines and newspapers where he could review books and publish essays about his favourite subjects. In the course of a year he reviewed dozens of books, some of which he confessed to not reading in their entirety (“I never read a book I must review,” he wrote, “it prejudices you so.”) Building for himself a credible byline which he hoped would open new opportunities for him, Wilde inhabited a freelancer's existence for a few years. This period was central to his growth as an independent thinker.

More here.