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How did America make Oscar Wilde?
Oxford Professor Michèle Mendelssohn explains what happened when Oscar Wilde moved to America
EVENT - Michèle will be discussing her acclaimed new biography, Making Oscar Wilde, on March 15 at the London Book and Screen Week. For details, go to londonbookandscreenweek.co.uk
Thank you for talking with us Michèle - you've led a particularly transatlantic life from the looks of it! Born in Montréal, since 2003 you've taught at Boston University, the University of Edinburgh, then the University of Utah as a Research Fellow, then the University of Oxford as an Associate Professor of English and Deputy Director of the Rothermere American Institute, then McGill University in Montréal as a visiting Professor, and you're now back in Oxford. Did you ever think you'd be as internationally mobile as you are?
Montréal was a very multicultural place to grow up. Both my parents had fairly international careers (my father worked in airport planning and design, and my mother was a flight attendant with Air Canada), so from a young age I felt I wanted to go exploring, too. At the first opportunity I got, I leapt at the chance to go abroad, working in Germany as an au pair and, later, a waitress at the age of 19. It was challenging (my German was so rusty!), but it gave me a taste of cosmopolitan living and I was hooked. I still feel deeply connected to my French Canadian roots, though.
Have those life experiences in both North America and the UK had an influence on your life, and the kind of subjects you cover in your work?
In a vague sense, yes. I drift towards subjects that are a little bit different, that fall between the cracks. I’m drawn to the rule breakers and those who dare to see the world differently. Conventions can be useful, but they can mask all sorts of injustices. What I’m interested in exploring is the part of life’s Venn diagram where convention intersects with the unconventional. The in-between is such a rich seam. You could say that my writing is fundamentally concerned with literature written by gays and ethnic minorities. Then again, you could just say that I prefer to tell the untold stories, which is what Making Oscar Wilde is.
Speaking of transatlantic life experiences, in 2018 you wrote a biography about Oscar Wilde, and you'll be speaking at this year's London Book & Screen Week about him. Your book, Making Oscar Wilde, looks at his career in Victorian England as well as in an America recovering from the Civil War - can you tell us a little about why Wilde made that trip to the States?
Imagine Wilde as a twenty-seven year old. He has had a starry career at Oxford, won prizes for his brilliance, and been assured the world will be his oyster. Yet suddenly he’s kicking around London trying to make a name for himself, writing poems and a play, and it’s all going wrong. He has tried his hand at various jobs, including as a sort of personal shopper with excellent taste in neckties. Nothing he has written has been successful. He has gained a local reputation as a man about town who socializes with celebrities and is only too happy to talk about beauty to anyone who will listen. On the back of his London fame, he is offered an American lecture tour from theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte whose Gilbert and Sullivan satire of Aestheticism is touring the US. Who better to promote this satire, the cynical manager thinks, than a silly young man who believes that art and beauty matter?
And so on Christmas Eve 1881, Oscar wraps himself in a fur cloak and sails towards the adventure of a lifetime. Once on the other side, he’ll discover he has made a pact with the devil, which is what I write about in my book, Making Oscar Wilde. I discovered some extraordinary new evidence and used it to write the true story of his phenomenal rise to fame and conquest of 19th century Britain and America.
How did America react to Oscar Wilde when he toured the States?
Initially, the US is like a fairytale come to life for him. As soon as his ship docks in New York City, he is dressed up by an American showman and posed by the nineteenth century’s preeminent celebrity photographer, Napoleon Sarony. Wilde is thrilled with his makeover. He tells his friend the actress Lillie Langtry that Sarony has made him “beautiful”, which is to say sex appealing.
At over six feet and two hundred pounds, he cut an imposing yet elegant figure. Wilde revelled in the attention. Wherever he went, crowds of adoring women would follow. Overnight, Wilde becomes a novelty item and his image is used to advertise products including cigars, ice cream and Madame Fontaine’s Bust Beautifier.
Do you have a favorite story about Wilde from his time in America?
Legend has it that on his arrival in the United States in 1882, Wilde breezed through customs telling officials: ‘I have nothing to declare but my genius.’ Yet there is no firm proof that he uttered the words - the anecdote was first recorded 30 years later. What is certainly true is that Wilde and the showmen who managed him quickly discovered that America adored him and that sex sells.
The most troubling thing to me was how much Wilde suffered in America and how vulnerable he was – even before he was put on trial in England for gross indecency in 1895. The same genius and free spirit that made Oscar special also made him vulnerable. His whiteness, his manhood and his class did not protect him in the US.
How influential was Wilde in the UK before his downfall?
In the closing decades of the 19th century, Oscar’s success could not be stopped. Before the end of the century, his name had become associated with verbal pyrotechnics all his own. There were two new words on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the 1890s – “Wildese” and “Wildean”. They testified to his unique voice, and put him in distinguished company – ‘Dickensian’ and ‘Shakespearean’ were also household words. Already the idea of Wilde’s genius had become ingrained in Victorian consciousness. Yet the influence of Wilde’s signature sound was to be more important still: it would remake the Victorian stage. It was the breath of life necessary to reinvigorate the English theatre, which was notable only for being horrible. The critic A.N. Wilson swiftly dismisses it, noting that “there were no plays of any interest or quality written in English between the death of Sheridan [1816, also Irish] and the emergence of Oscar Wilde [in the 1890s].”
Making Oscar Wilde paints the history of sensation-hungry journalism and popular entertainment, alongside racial controversies, sex scandals and the rising power of Irish nationalism.
What kind of topics will you be covering when you speak at the London Book and Screen Week?
I’ll be in conversation with Polari Literary Salon mastermind Paul Burston so anything could come up! We’ll be talking about Oscar’s formula for success, why his fame endures, the uncanny parallels between Wilde’s times and ours, Rupert Everett’s The Happy Prince (which is screening after our talk), what kind of parent Oscar was to his children, and how big Oscar’s Twitter following would be if he were still alive.
If you’d like to keep up to date with the talk or the book you can find me on Twitter here: @TheYoungOscar. Oscar’s following would have been huge I’m sure.
Michèle Mendelssohn is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Oxford University. She will be speaking about her critically acclaimed new biography Making Oscar Wilde (Oxford University Press) at London Book & Screen Week on Friday 15th March. For tickets, visit: londonbookandscreenweek.co.uk