Jan 25 2013

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America by Roy Morris Jr.

Maria Bustillos

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Oscar Wilde is famous for having found the Atlantic Ocean a bit of a letdown. "The roaring ocean does not roar," he observed in 1882. But he would face tumult soon enough. Wilde was just twenty-seven, and about to embark on a year-long lecture tour of the United States that would throw him together with miners and socialites, undergraduates and poets, and set the ocean of the world roaring around him. He was young, dandiacal, theatrical, publicity-seeking—ridiculed and lionized on both sides of the Atlantic. In years to come he would glitter with fame and accomplishment, yet he would also be ruined, jailed, and degraded, and find himself indigent, ill, and alone. Wilde's inward character bore raging contrasts; by nature "the kindest of men," as his biographer Richard Ellmann described him, Wilde was capable, too, of great selfishness, of doing terrible harm to people. It's no wonder he was so fond of paradoxes.

Since its publication in 1987, Ellmann's Oscar Wilde (2nd ed. revised and enlarged 2002) has all but monopolized the field of Wilde-biographizing; if anything, the cascade of prizes and accolades, including a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer, seemed too faint of praise. Which makes one wonder whether Roy Morris Jr.'s knees were knocking like maracas at the very thought of tackling Wilde's 1882 tour of the US in his biography, Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America. Ellmann covered this ground with such profound insight, elegance, and authority that one can't help asking: What does Morris have to add?

Not much, alas. Morris is a Civil War historian and the editor of Military Heritage magazine, so it's hard to fathom what brought him to write about such a manifestly non-military figure. He begins very badly, describing Ellmann's version of Wilde's tour as a "professorially brisk account" and claiming that Ellmann "skimps a good deal on the broader social and historical context." The author aims to remedy these alleged defects, but chapter after chapter emerges as a pallid rephrasing of Ellmann's far more vivid account of the same scenes and events. Even the title, Declaring His Genius, is identical to that of Ellmann's chapter on Wilde's American tour (both titles are a play on Wilde's response to a US customs official who asked if he had anything to declare: "I have nothing to declare but my genius"). For this reader, Ellmann's sixty-odd pages on the subject are substantially more illuminating than Morris's two hundred.

Morris's book follows Wilde from city to city, reporting exactly where he stayed and whom he hung around with in each place; minor incidents and personages are given equal space with hugely significant ones. In Utica he ordered grey silk stockings, and the Weekly Herald invited him to "descend from his pedestal of daffodils"; in St. Louis it rained, and the Globe-Democrat called him "The Lord of the La-de-dah." Maybe this was a deliberate attempt on Morris's part to give the idea of an undifferentiated whirlwind of activity, but the result is more rambling than picaresque.

Worse, Morris has a weirdly wrongheaded, not to say uncharitable, notion of his subject's character and ideas. For example, let's take Morris's view of Wilde's intellect. On his career at Oxford:

From the start of his undergraduate career, Wilde affected an airy indifference to formal education. Higher learning, he said, meant little to him, since "nothing that is worth knowing can be taught." He embarked instead on his own course of study at Oxford, which amounted chiefly to finding the best way to nurture his carefully cultivated image as an artist and make an immediate impression on all he met. [...] Despite his professions of academic indifference, Wilde surprised everyone, including himself, by graduating from Oxford in 1878 with a rare double "first" in classics and modern literature.

Leaving aside the fact that the honchos at Oxford don't exactly hand out Newdigate Prizes like party favors, the most cursory student of Wilde's career would know that for all his undergraduate bad-boy rowdiness and effete posturing—elegant Englishmen, then as now, do not care to be seen as "too keen"—he was possessed of a superb intellect. Ellmann offers a far more accurate account of Wilde's Oxford years. Yes, there were scuffles with the authorities over "impertinence," and there were ruby champagne tumblers, and best friends nicknamed "Bouncer" and "Kitten." But also:

Wilde did not totally neglect his classical studies except when the exercises were boring. The course included ancient history and philosophy as well as literature. He had an advantage over other students because of his excellent preparation at Portora and Trinity, and could treat his Oxford tutors with some arrogance. (His performance would not be assessed by them but by other examiners, at the end of his second and fourth years.) Much of his time went into reading in other fields. [...] While at Oxford he kept a Commonplace Book in which the range of reference is wide. He read Herbert Spencer and the philosopher of science William Kingdon Clifford; he was on easy terms not only with Plato and Aristotle, as required by his course, but with Kant, Hegel, Jacobi, Locke, Hume, Berkeley, and Mill. He alludes knowledgeably to Alfieri and quotes Baudelaire's 'O Signeur! donnez-moi la force et le courage / De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!"

I don't want to give the impression that all Wilde scholarship must begin and end with Ellmann; even Ellmann's book might contain a flaw or two. Take, for instance, Wilde's famous meeting with Henry James, when James is said to have remarked, "I am very nostalgic for London." Wilde, Ellmann writes, "could not resist putting him down": 'Really?' [Wilde] said, no doubt in his most cultivated Oxford accent. 'You care for places? The world is my home.'"

Morris joins Ellmann in reckoning this riposte as deliberate rudeness. But (and here I sense a faint rattling of my own patellae) this strikes me as a rare instance of tone-deafness on Ellmann's part. I don't think it was a put-down at all, but just the antic flavor of Wilde's conversation, something Yeats described as "the enjoyment of his own spontaneity." Wilde was a terrific tease; twenty-seven, as we were saying, to the humorless James's thirty-eight, and a most flamboyant and loopy character. Wasn't he joking in the playful, mildly hyperbolic manner that has come down to us pretty much intact?

The mercurial, paradoxical nature of Wilde's character will ensure that these deeper questions remain as thorny as they are fascinating. Still, it's to be regretted that Morris doesn't pursue them.

Morris's book has some value as a collection of entertaining anecdotes about Wilde's time in the US: Wilde let down into a mine in a rubber suit; Wilde mooning after the famous (if not very talented) actress Lily Langtry; Wilde fighting with the Pullman agent in Savannah who refused to permit him to buy a ticket for his black valet in the sleeping car; Wilde getting ripped off by a bunco artist in New York (he managed to get his money back). But unfortunately, Morris provides us with no overarching idea, not even a ghost of an attempt to lead us into a broader understanding of Wilde's time in this country, or—unlike Ellmann—the complexities of his subject's character.

Maria Bustillos is a Los Angeles-based writer.