The importance of being Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s greatest contribution to our culture is not his writing but the invention of celebrity. JP O’Malley is not entirely convinced.

Wilde In America

David M Friedman

Norton, €21.99

IN JANUARY 1882 Oscar Wilde arrived in New York harbour fresh off the boat from Liverpool. The 27-year-old aspirant writer was beginning an 11-month lecture tour of the United States.

Wilde’s literary career up until then amounted to very little beyond a few poems he’d published. And it would be some years before seminal works such as The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, The Picture of Dorian Gray, De Profundis, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol would shoot him to literary stardom.

But with no outstanding achievements to his name, yet, Wilde was willing to do whatever it took to become famous.

It just so happened that the theatrical partnership Gilbert and Sullivan had recently composed their operetta Patience. This was a satire that poked fun at the aesthetic movement of Victorian England.

Wilde was considered by many to be the great ambassador for aestheticism in London, where he was one of the finest socialites of his day. He could talk for hours on beauty, craftsmanship, interior decorating, and, most importantly, about how art’s number one mission was to deliver beauty to the world.

One of the main characters in Patience, Reginald Bunthorne, was loosely based on Wilde. And so Richard D’Oyly Carte — the producer of the show, who recognised a good opportunity for publicity when he saw one — proposed that Wilde take up a lecture tour across the United States promoting aesthetics. Seeing it as an opportunity to embrace fame, Wilde gladly accepted.

The tour made Wilde an international celebrity. Over the course of the year he travelled 15,000 miles, delivered 150 lectures, gave more than 100 interviews, featured in 500 newspaper articles, and made a small fortune.

In Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, David M Friedman claims that over his 11-month lecture tour, Wilde single handedly created the slightly distorted landscape we now refer to as celebrity culture.

I was unpersuaded by Friedman’s argument. But today I’ve come to see if a conversation with the author can convince me otherwise.

“Wilde came to America with a worldview that fame in itself should be the ultimate goal. And that anyone can be, or should be famous,” says Friedman when we meet.

“He had the foresight to recognise that you could launch your career by simply being well known. And he understood that if you could create a buzz about yourself, achievements really didn’t matter.

“Of course Wilde eventually became a man of achievements. But when he went to America in 1882, all he was known for was being a party animal and a wit in London. But he certainly wasn’t known for his literary talents.”

Despite being employed on his lecture tour to speak primarily about aesthetics, Wilde had a clever knack of including his own persona in speeches. In one interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer he described how his philosophy was always about the “appreciation of the beautiful”. He also commented how he “admired the Middle Ages, because their social life was natural and unharrased by petty rules.”

Friedman maintains that Wilde was speaking with what we would refer in today’s marketing language as “the confidence of a successful brand manager” particularly since the concept of being interviewed by the press was such a new phenomenon, he says.

“The newspaper interview in America at that stage was completely new and something that Britain still didn’t have. I think Wilde appreciated that this would be something that could really help him establish his brand as he travelled through numerous cities across the United States.

“Nobody had gone through a media onslaught like that at the time,” says Friedman.

“Wilde was interviewed 100 times in 300 days, in more than 100 cities, which is quite phenomenal. What he came to realise was that the interview was a theatrical performance. So whenever one came up, he would make sure to be elaborately costumed, often sitting in hotel rooms that were highly decorated.”

Many readers may find themselves, as I did, losing interest as they attempt to make their way through to the end of this book. And in parts, it’s really hard to know where Friedman is going.

For example, he recalls Wilde encountering both Walt Whitman and Henry James while on tour. But he spends very little time on the significance of these encounters. Instead, he resorts to massive generalisations, built from hearsay, gossip, and opinion.

I ask Friedman what was so special about Whitman and Wilde sitting down for the first time? “Well it was extremely significant,” he replies.

“Wilde in 1882 was years away from being a famous writer. So when he went to Whitman’s home he didn’t go to talk about writing, but to speak about celebrity.

He wanted to listen to Whitman who liked to explore the line between fame and notoriety. Whitman was a literary poet who understood the importance of image in the making of a literary career.”

Friedman ends his book with a brief analysis about Wilde’s trial in The Old Bailey, and subsequent imprisonment.

And bizarrely, Friedman then tries to link Wilde’s “invention of celebrity” during 1882, to his downfall during his trial in 1895. But this is I feel, a poor analysis, that seems to fit Friedman’s own narrative, rather than reflect the arbitrary nature of Wilde’s life.

“Wilde was so successful at becoming famous that in the end it actually ended up bringing him down,” says Friedman.

“Because what he didn’t understand was that once you reach this world of fame and celebrity, there are going to be people who want to bring you down.”

“He really thought becoming a celebrity would make him invisible. But he was wrong. And he realised, too late, unfortunately, that living your life in public the way he did, opens you up to accusations, and in his case, criminal charges that can do you serious harm. This led to his downfall.”

In Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, published in 2013, Roy Morris documented Wilde’s North American tour in meticulous detail. So do we really need another book to recreate these events? And even though Friedman keeps insisting that Wilde invented the term celebrity in the late 19th century by the end of his book, and our conversation, I’m really not so sure

“The Wilde who came to America quickly realised the importance of manipulating the press, having a photograph as a logo, and of meeting other celebrities,” says Friedman.

“And we have to give him credit for that. The irony is that most people think that Oscar Wilde’s longest living contribution to culture is his plays. But actually, it could be that his most lasting contribution is the birth of celebrity culture.”


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