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From the publication of Frank Harris’ Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions in 1916, the literary world has taken a keen interest in Wildeana, which has shown no indication of abating nearly 120 years after Wilde’s trial and conviction for gross indecency.
The last 30 years have brought us such excellent studies on Wilde as Richard Ellmann’s 1988 biography and Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde in 2006, one of the first biographies to see Wilde’s homosexuality as an organic part of his life rather than a suddenly occurring phenomenon. In 2000, Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland published an exhaustive 1,200 page volume compiling all of Wilde’s letters.
Yet, despite the snowballing explosion in Wilde scholarship, little attention has been paid exclusively to Wilde’s life before his literary success and his meteoric downfall, including the year Wilde spent in the United States lecturing on the aesthetic movement he helped found.
Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews is a welcome exception to this trend. In this collection, editors Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst have collected forty-eight of the ninety-eight interviews Wilde gave to the press during his whirlwind tour of the United States as a young man of 26. With few exceptions, most of these interviews have not seen publication since their original appearance in 1882.
The fact that they have languished for so long was, I think, a detriment both to Wilde scholarship and to our understanding of Wilde as a full human being— instead of a Dionysian, green carnation-adorned caricature chain smoking and dropping bon mots like wine grapes. Though to be fair, the young Wilde of The Interviews did much to cultivate this caricature: he greeted most journalists while wearing a number of flamboyant “aesthetic” outfits (he had a fondness for velvets in black, brown and green), smoked throughout the interviews, and made a number of quips—some of them less than kind—about his adolescent host nation, its artists, and its citizens at large.
However, the Wilde who emerges in these pages is not the self-assured wit of a thousand faces and paradoxes—the “God of Mirrors,” as Robert Reilly calls him in his glittering 1985 novelization of Wilde’s life of the same name. Rather, he is a young man of wide learning and dizzying understanding, as enamored with his own intellect as he is with the attention the press and public are giving him, even when he derides the former in private as “Narcissuses of imbecility.” He is, in many ways, like many bright young writers in their 20s, who are at the cusp of understanding their style and aesthetic and what they want out of their careers.
This is not the Wilde to whom we are accustomed, and meeting him at last through these interviews is both a curious and a powerful experience.
Along with a new view on Wilde’s work and personality, The Interviews does the reader another great service—though, perhaps, one that few aside from journalists like me will appreciate or even notice: it provides a strong snapshot of U.S. journalism in the early 1880s, which was as different in style and structure to today’s examples, as The Importance of Being Earnest is to Vera, Or the Nihilists.
To a person, the (mostly) anonymous journalists of Wilde’s tour were as obsessed with their subject’s long curls, pale skin, and “feminine” appearance as they were interested in making subtle jibes about his aesthetic ideas. Yet, as the Hofer and Scharnhorst’s lively and informative introduction clearly demonstrates, the U.S. media’s obsession with celebrity was much the same then as now.
Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews is truly a book that any serious Wilde scholar—and any reader interested in learning more about this endlessly fascinating figure in queer history—should pick up. Its importance to the scholarship and the picture it paints of Oscar Wilde on the cusp of becoming Oscar Wilde cannot be overstated or over-praised.
Oscar Wilde in America:
By Oscar Wilde; Edited by Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst
University of Illinois Press