Going Wilde in America

“Audiences deserted his lectures, Harvard students mocked his outfits, and his failures left him drunk and dejected." Reviewing Michele Mendelssohn's 'Making Oscar Wilde'.

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A portrait of Oscar Wilde. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Oscar Wilde is a creation of those who write about him. From my dog-eared GCSE coursework on The Importance of Being Earnest to the audiences of Victorian high society who adored and then loathed him, Wilde is made in our imagination. Picture him now – a witty, tragic, Victorian dandy, revered as a gay icon and literary great. Mendelssohn, however, has provided a refreshing and unexpected new interpretation of Wilde’s life.

The book starts with yet another interpretation of Wilde, from an 1882 American cartoon. He’s portrayed as a grotesque caricature of an African-American with the caption of “What’s de matter wid de n*gga? Why Oscar you’s gone wild!” Mendelssohn has uncovered an aspect of Wilde’s history previously neglected – the racial debates underpinning his 1882 American tour.

Arriving in America, Wilde was a living parody, the author of some badly received poetry and an unperformable play. He had been spurred on by popular interest in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience, which satirised Wilde and the aesthetic movement he led. His tour flopped – audiences deserted his lectures, Harvard students mocked his outfits to public glee, and his failures left him drunk, exhausted and dejected. Most damaging of all, however, was the popular press coverage and cartoons, satirising Wilde with gross racial caricatures. Mendelssohn presents an America obsessed with racial hierarchy, with the blacks and the Irish at the bottom. Wilde, a dandyish, effete and pretentious Irish import, was an easy target. He was called the ‘wild man of Borneo’; a woman called him a gorilla in the street. Central to this mockery was the popular minstrel culture of the time; grotesque black-face shows that sometimes included mocking presentations of Wilde and his set.

Mendelssohn deftly shows how Wilde reinvented himself in the face of these attacks. He reclaimed his Irishness, spun tales of being lauded by Colorado miners, and visited Jefferson Davis, erstwhile Confederate President, to burnish his ‘white’ credentials. Most importantly, Mendelssohn suggests Wilde’s American experience firmly shaped his later writing. Characters and scenes in Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Im- portance lampoon not only America’s puritanical society, but the style of minstrel shows. Wilde is renowned for making high society laugh at its own absurdities, but Mendelssohn argues his extraordinary wit was channelled into a very English take on the same minstrels who once spoofed him.

Convincing? Not entirely. The book is a cracking read, informative and thought- provoking. But Mendelssohn’s suggested link between Wilde’s greatest works and his American experience seems a little far- fetched. Mendelssohn’s Wilde is another creation of those who write about him. Perhaps the most important lesson this book teaches us is just how hard it is to understand him. The man was a mass of contradictions; reinvention was part of his nature. Trying to understand how he was ‘made’ is inevitably going to disappoint. However, it is to Mendelssohn’s great credit that she attempts it in such a refreshingly readable fashion.

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