When Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde embarked on his 1882 tour of America at the tender age of 27, he had little to show for his declaration of genius. Self-styled professor of aesthetic and the author of a slender volume of poetry, Wilde was achieving wider notoriety as the incarnation of Reginald Bunthorne, the dreamy sunflower-worshipping aesthete caricatured in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience. When the English theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte was looking to drum up publicity for the American production of Patience, he lit upon the idea of sending aestheticism’s leading exponent across the Atlantic for an extensive lecture tour. But from the moment Wilde arrived in New York on 3 January 1882, where he is supposed to have told American customs agents, ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius,’ the tour developed a momentum of its own: a 12-month, transcontinental odyssey, taking in over 140 cities and towns and nearly as many interviews with reporters clamouring to know Wilde’s views on everything from America to aestheticism.
In Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press 248pp £19.95)[order], Roy Morris Jr treats us to a lively account of Wilde’s rollicking tour through post-Civil War America, fleshing out the varied impressions of contemporary newspaper reports with fascinating digressions on the cast of characters Wilde met along the way. The spectacle of this flesh-and-blood Bunthorne, direct from Dublin via Piccadilly, attracted poets and politicians alike. While Henry James professed a cordial dislike of him (a ‘fatuous fool’), Walt Whitman was more generous in his appraisal, wishing Wilde and all the ‘young and ardent’ fellow travellers of aestheticism well. In the Deep South Wilde paid a visit to Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States. Not knowing what to make of Wilde’s effeminate airs, Davis beat an early retreat and retired to his study; his wife and daughter, however, were charmed by the visiting poet and spent the rest of the evening discussing literature and art.
Wilde’s reception in America was uneven. If some were bemused by the colourful paraphernalia of aestheticism, others bristled at the suggestion that this export from Britain had anything to teach them about beauty and taste. Wilde was, by his own admission, a lame public speaker – but he was a born self-promoter. At a time when celebrity interviews were just beginning to take off in the US, Morris argues that ‘Wilde pioneered the way in which modern celebrities are created, cultivated, and commodified’. In his dealings with the press Wilde knew how to play the game, dispensing quotable copy and maintaining a genial air in the face of tiresomely repetitive questions. The same equanimity was extended to his hecklers, and many of those who came to jeer the ‘too too utterly utter’ spectacle of an overwrought fop in satin knee breeches with crushed velvet coat and green cravat found themselves disarmed by Wilde’s unflappable demeanour and genial good humour. It was less an ability to laugh at himself – his commitment to aestheticism was too sincere – than a willingness to deflect ridicule with humour, honed as the occasion required.
Yet while his public mask rarely slipped – complaining to a journalist for the Boston Globe of how the press had monopolised him since his arrival three weeks earlier, he quickly added, ‘But then, I am always glad to see you’ – Wilde was privately scathing of reporters, these ‘narcissuses of imbecility’, lamenting to the American poet Joaquin Miller that their reports reflected not the clear outlines of Beauty, but ‘the shifting and shadowy image of their own substantial stupidity’.
If America did not always know what to make of Wilde, the country was in many ways the making of him as an artist. He returned to England richer in pocket and, more importantly, in experience. The tour marked a divide between what Wilde himself designated ‘the Oscar of the first period’ (‘the gentleman who wore long hair and carried a sunflower down Piccadilly’) and what was to come. In the following decade Wilde would assiduously cultivate the Oscar of the second period, publishing the stories and plays that made him famous.
His fall, when it came, was colossal. When The Importance of Being Earnest opened to wild acclaim on 14 February 1895, its author was the toast of London society. Less than two months later, having lost a disastrous libel claim against the 9th Marquess of Queensberry for imputations of homosexual conduct, Wilde was arrested on charges of gross indecency and later sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The physical and moral devastation of the trial and its fallout shattered him. Three years after his release, Wilde died as an impoverished and ignominious exile in Paris.
Queensberry is often portrayed as the chief villain in this tragedy, a bigoted and violent bully whose vindictive campaign to bring about Wilde’s downfall became an all-consuming obsession. As Wilde’s posthumous reputation rose, so Queensberry’s fell, though his belligerently unorthodox views on marriage and religion ensured it was never particularly high while he was alive. In The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis (Yale University Press 316pp £20)[order], Linda Stratmann suggests that Queensberry is a convenient villain, ‘a man you can easily love to hate, a one-dimensional caricature of a wicked, violent type, rampaging about with a horsewhip and frothing at the mouth with hatred’. Her biography seeks to portray Wilde’s nemesis in the round, showing how behind the vitriol of his letters to Bosie and other family members was a sensitive and misunderstood man. While Queensberry’s homophobia and anti-Semitism were typical enough expressions of Victorian sensibility, the slightly unhinged quality of his rage must be understood in the context of a life crosshatched by tragedy from an early age: his father’s suicide, the death of a beloved brother while climbing in the Alps and the apparent suicide of his eldest son, Francis, amid rumours – faint but threatening to erupt into a full-blown scandal – that Queensberry’s heir-apparent had engaged in homosexual relations with the prime minister, Lord Rosebery.
Stratmann’s principal difficulty in making the case for Queensberry as a ‘sensitive and vulnerable man’ is that her subject is such a poor witness in his own defence. Queensberry’s letters to his miscreant sons, Bosie and Percy, make wonderful reading, endlessly creative in their insults and bristling with challenges. ‘What you both require’, he fulminated in a letter to Bosie just before his trial for criminal libel, ‘is a damned good hiding’, upon which he lamented the fact that he had not thrashed them as children, ‘to knock the conceit and shit out of you before you had arrived at your present state’. Family or not, Queensberry’s response to blackguards and miscreants was always the same: have the matter out man to man and back himself, for any ready money, to give the offender the licking he so richly deserved.
Bosie, of course, declined to fight by Queensberry’s rules, preferring to goad his father into the kind of rash action that would, with luck, result in his criminal prosecution. Caught in the middle of a bitter family feud, Wilde found himself playing catspaw. Stratmann argues that Queensberry should not be judged too harshly for bringing matters to a head through the notorious calling card he left at the Albemarle Club: ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]’. Rather than the venal or malicious motives ascribed to him by history, Queensberry was simply acting as a father driven to distraction by worry, ‘doing everything he could think of to put an end to a relationship which he believed – and there was abundant justification for that belief – would result in the ruin of his son’.
Perhaps. Yet the fact that his son (‘this wretched abortion of a creature’) was repeatedly disowned, and that his triumph at the Old Bailey restored, in some measure at least, his standing in the Establishment that had so long shunned him, is somewhat at odds with Stratmann’s portrayal of a loving father driven to despair. While her book will do little to rehabilitate the posthumous reputation of Queensberry, however, its wealth of detail does ultimately bear out Richard Ellmann’s assessment, in his 1987 biography of Wilde, that far from being a simple brute, Queensberry was in fact quite a complex one.
When Wilde finally emerged from prison in May 1897, one person who did not immediately shun him was Carlos Blacker. An old friend from London, Blacker had been a witness for Wilde at his wedding to Constance Lloyd, and there were long periods up until 1893 when the pair had met on a daily basis. When Blacker wrote to his disgraced friend proposing a reunion in Paris, Wilde’s response betrayed the depths of his gratitude:
You were always my staunch friend and stood by my side for many years. Often in prison I used to think of you: of your chivalry of nature, of your limitless generosity, of your quick intellectual sympathies, of your culture so receptive, so refined. What marvellous evenings, dear Carlos, we used to have!
Yet just three months after this initial reunion, what Wilde referred to as their ‘ancient friendship’ was irreparably broken, each aggrieved party accusing the other of betrayal.
How this rift came about is the subject of J Robert Maguire’s Ceremonies of Bravery: Oscar Wilde, Carlos Blacker, and the Dreyfus Affair (Oxford University Press 213pp £25)[order]. Maguire, a lawyer with a long-standing interest in the Dreyfus case, meticulously assembles the evidence showing the extent to which Blacker and Wilde became caught up in the affair, and the way in which small personal betrayals (perceived or real) played such a decisive role in the much wider drama. Maguire is concerned that histories of the Dreyfus case fail to give Blacker the credit he is due as one of the main players behind the scenes (astonishingly, neither Blacker nor Wilde is mentioned in Jean-Denis Bredin’s L’Affaire (1983), widely credited as the standard reference on the subject).
The background events can be sketched briefly. Blacker became intimately involved in the effort to clear Dreyfus’s name from charges of spying for the Germans when his close friend Alessandro Panizzardi, the Italian military attaché in Paris, revealed the real culprit to be Commandant Ferdinand Walsin-Esterhazy. Blacker, unwisely in the event, confided this information to Wilde during their emotional reunion in Paris. The revived warmth of their friendship quickly cooled, however, when Wilde began to suspect that Blacker was avoiding any further meetings. The fact that Wilde had begun consorting with Esterhazy – the kind of volatile stage villain whose antics he found irresistible – can’t have helped matters, but there was also concerted pressure from Blacker’s wife, Carrie, to stop the meetings. Whether in a fit of pique at the perceived slight or in a moment of drunken indiscretion, Wilde divulged the details of Panizzardi’s confession to a couple of reporter friends. It did not take long for the information to appear in the press, simultaneously ruining Blacker’s carefully laid plans to ensnare Esterhazy and exposing him to savage attacks by the anti-Dreyfusard press.
Forced to flee France, Blacker accused Wilde of having betrayed his confidence. His accusations prompted an angry response from Wilde, who would later complain to Robbie Ross, his literary executor, that Blacker had behaved like a ‘hypocritical ass’, taking the moral high ground on Wilde’s continuing association with Bosie while ignoring his own history as a card cheat and general escroc (long-buried claims against which Wilde, in happier days, had staunchly defended his friend). Not for the first time in his life, Wilde went on the attack over allegations that were, for all his denials, true. For the Oscar of the second period, the successful playwright at the height of his fame, the consequences were public humiliation and personal ruin. For the Oscar of the final period, the broken figure shunned by all the world, the result was to sunder that ancient friendship which had so consoled him in his prison cell. Wilde’s bitter recriminations over the breach survive in letters to Ross; Blacker’s own feeling about the matter remain obscure, his personal correspondence and other papers relating to the affair having largely been lost or destroyed. All we have left is the compressed pathos of his diary entry for 25 June: ‘After lunch just before dinner letter from Oscar which put an end to our friendship forever.’