by Kristian Williams
Oscar Wilde in America collects 48 interviews from Wilde’s 1882 North American tour. The book offers a glimpse of Wilde at the dawn of his fame—before Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, or his imprisonment for homosexuality. In 1882 he was just a young man who had written one volume of unspectacular verse, and yet he was a celebrity—not for what he had done, but for what he represented. Wilde came to this continent to lecture on—and, in a sense, to personify—aestheticism, which is a philosophy of beauty, art, and life.
Wilde discusses his theories at some length in these interviews. He outlines his broad principles, their practical application, and their social effect. While these thoughts are no doubt of interest to scholars, too much of the book is concerned with trivia, and Wilde repeats himself tirelessly—or tiresomely. The fault here lies with the reporters, who asked him more or less the same questions in every town he visited: “What are your general impressions of America?” “Why are you are always pictured posing with a sunflower or drooping over a lily?”
These newspaper interviews also give considerable attention to questions of Wilde’s appearance—his physique, his clothing, and his hair. That is fair enough, given that he was lecturing as an expert on beauty. But interestingly, many of the reporters are also overtly preoccupied with Wilde’s self-presentation—that is, with the issue of his manliness, or apparent effeminacy. Nineteenth-century opinions about this matter seem to have differed sharply.
Perhaps Walt Whitman’s impression of Wilde says it best: “I think him genuine, honest, and manly…. I don’t see why such mocking things are written of him.”
Kristian Williams is the author, most recently, of American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (South End Press, 2006). He is presently at work on a book about Oscar Wilde and anarchism.
Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews
Edited by Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst
University of Illinois Press (www.press.uillinois.edu)
208 pages, hardcover, $40