Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America,
Roy Morris, Belenap Press of the Harvard University, Pp 248 (HB), $ 26.95
GILBERT and Sullivan’s Patience has started acquiring popularity in the states. And entirely coincidentally, Oscar Wilde was the model for Burnthorne, a well- mannered aesthete, barreling down London’s Picadilly road fashioning a lily. So when the producer of Patience, Richard D’Oyly asked a broke Oscar Wilde to pay America a visit, Wilde said yes.
But as Morris shows, Wilde may have gone to promote Patience, but he ended up earning fans for himself as well. Morris attempts to describe the 260 days that Wilde spent in the United States, giving lectures on Aestheticism in 140 cities and towns. America received the ambitious playwright like a celebrity. In the time that Wilde spent in the States, he would have audience with Walt Whitman, Jefferson Davis, Henry James and Ulysses S. Grant. Wilde’s journey would be as colourful as the man himself. In Boston “a madcap procession of sixty Harvard men who marched down the center aisle in pairs, all carrying sunflowers and wearing Wildean costumes.” But Wilde would parry this attack with a strong sense of humour.
Although a historical book, Morris presents his subjects in a narrative fashion. Adding a bit of personality to his account, Morris’ involvement with his work shows. This shows in Morris’ recollection of the Great Chicago Fire that occurred 10 years before Wilde’s foray, but was relevant for the architecture it allowed Wilde to see, Morris cites a host of reasons for the fire, from spontaneous combustion to Mrs. O’leary and her evil cow.
The book at times does seem repetitious and some of Wilde’s encounters are listed rather than reported, but Morris redeems himself well with the ending, leaving Wilde and the reader better off. “It was a far cry from his much-heralded arrival almost exactly one year earlier.” Yet according to Morris, Wilde went left America pleased for his visit and America left Wilde ready to commit to his marriage to his job. Wilde’s next visit to America was much shorter, for his Vera which received bad reviews. But Wilde got the better end of the bargain, a lesson; that he should write plays that are strong for their lines and not the actors. Subsequently Wilde would write plays that would go on to be hits even if they were acted out by a troupe of schoolchildren. And America would at least in part claim credit for showing Wilde his path of enlightenment.
Roy Morris Jr. is the editor of Military Heritage and author of six previous books on 19th century American history.
(Harvard University Press, 79 Garden St. Cambridge MA 02138-1423)