Oscar Wilde is Still Alive! The Best Books About Oscar Wilde
Author: Tom Cardamone
October 14, 2020
“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” –Oscar Wilde
In 2015, I embarked upon the single bravest journey any avid reader can undertake: I publically forsook buying books for an entire year so that I might dedicate myself to reducing the teetering unread stacks I had purchased in the preceding decades.
This unprecedented adventure was primarily an economic one: at the time I spent an inordinate amount of my income on books and assorted media and felt that specific cuts would help reign in what had started out as a passion but had slipped into an obsession. The books I was then compelled to consider were a predictably weird lot–a direct reflection of my taste in general plus related ephemera. It was for this reason and this reason alone that I devoured Douglas Murray’s Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas (2000) about Oscar Wilde’s historically problematic twink. Bosie had been on my shelves for one decade, packed and unpacked across two boroughs and three apartments. Infamous Lord Alfred Douglas, still upstaging Oscar with the most singular and gay line ever immortalized in poetry: “The love that dare not speak its name.” I’d expected a quick read, the prerequisite condemnations, and some salacious gossip. Instead, I found a meditative, fully fleshed out life ripe for reconsideration, one informed by familial tragedy, deep research, and unexpected insights. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough Oscar Wilde. Next, I read Thomas Wright’s Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, published in 2010. This literary detective work reconstitutes Wilde’s personal library, sold en masse after his trial, Built of Books is a masterwork that unpacks the books that fueled Wilde’s extraordinary imagination and criticism.
These books about Wilde just kept coming. His emerald shadow looms large in David Skal’s lavishly illustrated Something in the Blood, the Man Who Wrote Dracula. This tome could have easily extended the subtitle “And Was Terribly Afraid of Oscar Wilde.” I reviewed this book one Halloween past and recommend it, as it contains one gay revelation after another concerning Bram Stoker, with a lengthy, welcomed deviation into the exuberance of Wilde and his untimely fall from grace, which most likely sealed Stoker’s closet door shut tighter than any coffin. Skal’s Dracula book previewed an extended bibliography of early attempts to cash in on Wilde’s scandalous reputation, including 1923’s Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde–composed when the author, Hester Dowden, was in a supposed trance (later parodied by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake).
A quick review of books on Wilde reflect the sustained interest in his life and work. (The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan, 2016, Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years by Nicholas Frankel, 2017, and Making Oscar Wilde by Michèle Mendelssohn 2018, among other titles). This fascination has existed since shortly after his death. Friends and colleagues put out work to leaven, as much as possible owing the times, his annihilated character (Letters to the Sphinx From Oscar Wilde and Reminiscences of the Author by Ada Leverson, 1930). Oscar’s friend Frank Harris published an early reminiscence of Wilde and one of the first biographies in 1916 (more about Harris below). Wilde’s son, Vyvyan, wrote Son of Oscar Wilde in 1954.
While Wilde’s writings have been continuously in print and explored in film for decades, his biographies have expanded with the telling of the stories of his mother, wife, (Wilde’s Women, Eleanor Fitzsimmons, 2015), father (Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, Colm Toibin, 2018), friends (André & Oscar: Gide, Wilde and the Gay Art of Living, Jonathan Fryer 2014), and even a lesbian relation who bore a striking resemblance to her infamous uncle, whom she would portray in drag at parties (Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece, 2000, by Joan Schenkar).
Needless to say, I have my reading cut out for me and, while I have relaxed into the habit of reading one book on Wilde a year, I purchase many more, each elucidating yet another fascinating facet of Wilde. I recently read David M. Friedman’s 2014 Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity which details the adventures of a young Oscar at the height of his social powers, where upon his arrival in New York when asked if he had anything to declare, he famously quipped “Nothing but my genius.” Not only did he hypnotize a young country hungry for culture but, in doing so prior to writing his plays or his novel, Oscar Wilde became the first person famous for being famous.
Even when I didn’t go looking for Wilde, he was there. I reviewed Peter McGough’s powerful autobiography I’ve Seen the Future and I’m Not Going: The Art Scene and Downtown New York in the 1980s for these very pages, which ends with McDermott & McGough installing a temple to Oscar Wilde, now permanently in London. And Oscar still makes the news: the decommissioned prison Wilde immortalized in the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was just this year denied the opportunity to be turned into an arts center. However, in 2016, artists like Steve McQueen transformed empty cells with Wildean homage. There Patti Smith and Rupert Everett (whose turn as Wilde on stage in The Judas Kiss and on screen in The Happy Prince make one think he was born to play the role), among others, read “De Profundis” aloud in its entirety.
Adrift on this life raft of books, curious about the take others had on Wilde’s literary wake, I put a call out to writers–all of whom I had the great fortune and privilege of working with on the anthologies Crashing Cathedrals: Edmund White by the Book and The Lost Library: Gay Fiction Rediscovered–asking them to chime in on some of the books about Wilde that have graced their shelves.
Rick Whitaker, author of An Honest Ghost
Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, 1916
The Welsh-Irish-American writer Frank Harris (1856-1931) led a “colorful” life. Backwards and forwards between Europe and American (where he became a citizen in 1921), he worked as a cowboy, lawyer, hotel manager, novelist, and editor. He married an Englishwoman who died a year later. He was above all a fabulist. He told the truth, as Max Beerbohm remarked, “only when his invention flagged.” He was a wholly unreliable narrator, and his non-fiction books are best read as inspired by, rather than descriptions of, the real behavior, spoken words, intentions, and actions of the figures, like Wilde, he “handled” in his books. Wilde, himself no devotee to real life, was Harris’ ideal subject. Their friendship was genuine, as long as it lasted, which was until Wilde was in prison and Harris stole an idea from him for a play Wilde intended to write, promising to give Wilde money for it and failing to do so. “Frank Harris,” Wilde would say of his erstwhile friend, “has been received in all the great houses–once.” He “has no feelings. It is the secret of his success.”
Paul Russell, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov: A Novel
The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde by Peter Ackroyd, 1983
In this fictional diary-account of Wilde’s final days in Parisian exile, Peter Akroyd expertly inhabits the rebel artist-critic’s aphoristic, paradox-loving voice. If Richard Ellmann in his magisterial biography is a literary detective attempting to work his evidence from the outside in, Akroyd exuberantly ventriloquizes his subject from the inside out, allowing himself to be possessed by Wilde’s wounded, loving, beauty-intoxicated soul. Truth can be detected by sifting evidence, but it can also, perhaps even more effectively, be reconstructed through a series of astute, well-crafted lies—as Wilde himself knew well. An enchanting testament to the life-bestowing power of the imagination.
Gregory Woods, author of Homintern
Who Was That Man?: A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde by Neil Bartlett, 1988
Neil Bartlett’s Who Was That Man?: A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde is both a portrait of Wilde and his times and a memoir of Bartlett’s own life as a gay man, mapping the London of the 1890s onto that of the 1980s. Bartlett says his subject is ‘that part of my history which is called “Oscar Wilde”’. Highly rhetorical, poetic and dramatic, erotic and camp, it is a luscious act of trans-historical identification. It is the first book that fully takes ownership of Wilde for the post-Gay Liberation generation. Published at the height of AIDS-related homophobia in the media, it is a proudly resistant celebration of gay hedonism.
Christopher Bram, author Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America
I’ve been living with Oscar Wilde ever since senior year in high school when I wrote my honor’s English paper on “Oscar Wilde: The Artist as Homosexual.” (He was the only gay figure I knew in 1969; my classmates and even my teacher thought I chose the topic just to be shocking. I regret to say my thesis was, “Yes, Wilde was a homosexual, but it’s okay because he also wrote The Importance of Being Earnest.”) So when I went to see the highly praised Moises Kaufman play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde in 1997, I assumed it’d be a good night of theater but I’d learn nothing new. Instead, I was transfixed, electrified. This documentary play used the actual words of the trials and newspaper coverage, but so well chosen and inventively staged that the familiar story became new again. Holding it together was a solid performance by Michael Emerson as Wilde. It was like reading a great literary biography.
Hungry for more Oscar, I returned to Richard Ellmann’s “definitive” bio, which I had read soon after it came out in 1988. He gave us the witty, erudite, playful writer in all his literary glory, an intellectual disguised as a showman. Ellmann was especially good on the influence of such thinkers as John Ruskin and Walter Pater. He was good on the first meetings with Lord Alfred Douglas. But the accounts of the trial were oddly abstract, even sketchy, especially after Kaufman’s vivid dramatization. Ellmann died six months before his book appeared, but his publisher insisted the manuscript had been delivered and was ready for publication. I am not so sure. Perhaps Ellmann felt he didn’t need to go into the details of the trials since they were the focus of earlier books. His account of Wilde’s two years in prison is devastating, showing how it broke his spirit. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that Ellmann would’ve gone back and pulled the trial chapters into better shape if his health had been stronger and he had lived longer.
But I wasn’t finished yet with Wilde. I saw the Kaufman play again when my good friend (and literary agent) Edward Hibbert was cast as the lead. Edward played Wilde as the smartest, cockiest, most dazzling man in the room, a show-off who had no doubts about himself, who thought he was invulnerable. When the trials destroyed him, we saw a great man fall from a great height. Not a word was changed in the text, but Edward’s performance transformed the play from a fine biography to a powerful drama. Maybe my friendship with Edward affected my viewing–Edward usually is the most dazzling man in the room–but his Wilde made a new kind of sense.
The moral of these double readings of two different portraits might be that the best life stories are never one thing or the other. People often call for the definitive life, the final interpretation of a famous man or woman, but there is no such animal. Not only do times change and new evidence come forward, but an individual’s life is so rich and various than any number of truthful books can be written about it. The most exciting people do not stay still like statues, but continue to change and move and dance, even in death.
Philip F. Clark, poetry editor of A&U Magazine
Oscar Wilde’s Italian Dream: 1875-1900 byDamian Press, 2020.
Gay men have always sought some refuge—those particular landscapes that would welcome them; where they could live their lives and their sexual identities with a freedom not granted in their native countries—some Alexandria, Ithaka, Mykonos, Tunisia, Provincetown, of the mind and body. In this lavishly illustrated book, Renato Miracco shows us Wilde’s Italy; specifically, Naples. Of three major journeys there, before and after his ruinous trials, it was the place for Wilde to seek out “masterpieces of marble and flesh.” It was an Eden of flesh and freedom, embracing his gay life. In letters, documents, and photographs Miracco reveals that the man, disparaged and finally broken, who sought the stars from the mountain or gutter, found his constellations.
Oscar Wilde has never left our consciousness . The New York based Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore (1967 to 2009) proudly withstood years of vandalism before closing during the last financial crisis. McDermott and McGough’s Oscar Wilde Temple was installed at The Church of the Village on 13th Street, in the West Village, 2017 before moving to London. An exuberant, decadent, and (for Manhattan) decidedly massive tavern has now emerged on 27th street. All of the clocks in the Oscar Wilde bar are set to 1:50 PM, the moment of his death. Yet the books discussed here prove his immortality is a continually unfolding carnation of delight. Let us make our celebrations of Oscar Wilde’s wit and wisdom permanent by declaring his birthday an international holiday. Every October 16th forthwith, let us give one another our favorite queer books as presents and quote Oscar while hoisting cocktails, cheering his living brilliance. And ours.