The Importance of Being Wilde

Elias Altman in Lapham's Quarterly:

WildecartedevisiteOn Christmas Eve, 1881, Oscar Wilde boarded a steamship at Liverpool and disembarked in New York City on January 3, proceeding over the next year to travel fifteen thousand miles across North America by carriage, boat, and train, delivering more than 140 lectures, sitting for at least ninety-eight interviews, and becoming the subject of more than five hundred newspaper articles. Wilde gave talks on aestheticism and interior decorating at the Music Hall in Boston, Platt’s Hall in San Francisco, the Pavilion in Galveston, and the Academy of Music in Halifax. He drew crowds ranging from twenty-five to 2,500, made up variously of socialites, intellectuals, housewives, students, prospectors, prostitutes, and Texas Rangers. Along the way he met, drank, or supped with Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry James. In terms of scope, pace, and publicity (generated and attracted), the lecture series surpassed both of Charles Dickens’ American reading tours. Wilde was twenty-seven years old.

What makes this extensive tour even more incredible is that the author of A Picture of Dorian Gray, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest wasn’t much of an author in 1881: the sole published book to bear his name was a volume of verse—dismissed by one reviewer as “Swinburne and water”—that Wilde had printed at his own expense. So how and why did this foreign nobody come to America with such fanfare and go on to become one of the most-quoted somebodies of the nineteenth century? This is a question raised in Roy Morris Jr.’s 2013 book Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America and wonderfully answered in David M. Friedman’s 2014 book Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. While Wilde was a decade away from writing his famous novel it seems he already knew in his heart—and his American adventure embodied—one of its best lines: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

More here.