Making Oscar Wilde

by Michèle Mendelssohn, OUP, 360pp, £20

In January 1882, Oscar Wilde toured America with a trunkful of lace-trimmed velvet coats and low-cut Byronic blouses. From New York to Colorado, audiences went wild for Oscar, whose applications of rouge and dyed green carnation buttonholes were so unlike anything worn by the majority of cowboys.

Throughout his 10-month American adventure, the 27-year-old Dublin-born aesthete presented a celebrity-conscious image of style and self-adornment. His plan as a lecturer was to bring the English Aesthetic movement to America and rid the nation of its vulgar (as he saw it) tendency towards materialism. This was no hazy brainwave, but a determined effort to introduce Yankees and Southerners alike to Walter Pater’s art-for-art’s sake aesthetic.

Wilde, 6ft 4in in knee breeches and silver-buckled pumps, threw out witticisms to the American nation like confetti. In Washington a woman approached him: “So this is Oscar Wilde: but where is your lily?”, to which Wilde replied: “At home, madam, where you left your good manners.”

Making Oscar Wilde chronicles the American lecture tour and the sundry society belles, industrialists, journalists and even penitentiary inmates encountered along the way. From Canada to the Gulf of Mexico Wilde lectured in 30 states, and became “one of the era’s most interviewed people”, says Mendelssohn in her wonderfully well-written book. Not all Americans warmed to Wilde’s dandified personality. The Civil War veteran and journalist Ambrose Bierce sniped: “There was never an imposter so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft.” On the whole, though, Wilde was liked; “la-da-dahism” became the flavour of the moment even in the saloon bars of the Wild West.

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