Book Review: Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde In North America, by Roy Morris, Jr.
—by John Cooper—
Those of us, like Mrs Cheveley, who are fond of calling things by their proper name, would struggle to categorize Declaring His Genius, by Roy Morris, Jr.
Let us start with what it is not. It is not profound enough to be a serious biography of an American Wilde—and, to be fair, it might never have been published if it were. Besides, one would not expect such an approach of a book that asserts that ‘Wilde may well have been a genius—at self promotion, if nothing else’ [my emphasis], which makes one wonder whether the author is convinced enough of Wilde as a thinker or writer to produce a critical study.
But neither is the book what it purports to be, which is an account of Wilde’s time in America—at least not exclusively. This is because the Wilde story Morris gives us is full of holes. By this I am not referring to the wealth of factual errors throughout the text which need only be problematic for the Wilde historian. As such there is no need to dwell on them here, beyond noting that the Introduction signals this disregard for integrity by adhering to remarks that sound ‘like something Wilde would have said’, explaining that the book ‘depends to a certain extent on anecdote, word of mouth, and local legend.’
—[See web site for list of scholarly errata]—
No, by holes I mean the opportunistic detours the book takes from a rounded theme of Wilde’s American tour which Morris fills with square pegs. The result is a flawed schema that places its protagonist amid an anthology of sometimes tangential, but often downright irrelevant, populist history.
Curiously, however, Morris does not provide this sort of extraneous information egregiously: it’s just that he does not care to differentiate between diversions which underpin his theme and those that undermine it.
For instance, in setting the scene for Wilde’s arrival in America, Morris appropriately provides the context of the industrial might of the Centennial Exhibition as a contrasting backdrop to Wilde’s emerging aestheticism and interest in women’s issues. Moreover, he does this with some good expression and well found historical social commentary. But it is not long before Wilde is in the midwest where we learn that one of the suspects in the cause of the Chicago fire eleven years earlier was Mrs O’Leary’s cow.
Typical of this unbridled approach is the picture Morris paints of San Francisco. After poring over a list of local eccentric characters he eventually singles out the virtually unknown Joshua Abraham Norton, about whom we are treated to a whole page detailing his history, habits and, for some reason, the names of his dogs. It doesn’t seem to matter that the man was unconnected to Wilde, unconnected to any possible narrative about Wilde, and had died two years before Wilde even arrived in America.
Therein lies the problem of identity. Were the book intended as a generalist compendium of the period—something which the author comfortably demonstrates his ability to deliver—it would have been criticized for gratuitously appropriating second-hand anecdotes about Wilde; while as a specialist history of Wilde’s lecture tour it lapses too easily into being a generalist compendium. Thus the project self-fulfills its remit: it is an Oscar Wilde book written by a Civil War journalist.
As a generalist in a Wilde sense, Morris does not engage in too much original analysis or interpretation. There is no new scholarship. He is content to readily cite Wilde sourcebooks by Mary Blanchard or Lewis & Smith. Nonetheless, he does this fastidiously where necessary, such as when he elucidates the identity of Wilde’s valet as given by Ellmann. This methodology reveals Morris as a man of details. He is assiduous in identifying anachronisms in Wilde’s early play Vera, which, despite being set in the late 18th century, includes some allusions from the late 19th century, when it was written. One is grateful for this as it is seldom mentioned. Morris also creditably recognizes the writings of Mary Eliza Haweis, another valuable, but less often mentioned, progenitor of Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy, especially as it relates to dress.
Haweis’ relationship with Wilde is fully explored in my book Oscar Wilde On Dress
Morris’ penchant for the particular is also realized in his pointing out, perhaps too pedantically, that the flower which Lillie Langtry is seen holding in Millais’ painting of her, is not a Jersey Lily but rather the genus Guernsey Lily. In a more worth while pursuit, perhaps, Morris’ observation extends to the woman herself, and I tend to concur with his challenging of Langtry’s supposed status as a beauty, although he is generous and wise enough to recognize that tastes change.
It follows, then, that Morris’ working sense of Wilde texts employs a historical eye for detail rather than critical feeling for comprehension. This is exemplified in the way he nicely couples the aesthetes’ sensibilities about furniture with Wilde’s later aside on the subject in The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891)—but without mentioning that the essay is not principally about design and that Wilde said the same things at greater length almost a decade earlier in his lectures.
Detailed though he is, Morris has vision enough not to succumb too easily to Wildean apocrypha. For instance, he is correctly suspicious of Wilde’s death bed quotation about the wallpaper —’one of us will have to go,’ (which Wilde may have said, but certainly not as he lay dying). He also helps to propagate the trend in recent biography of doubt towards Wilde’s alleged ‘nothing to declare but my genius’ quotation at New York Customs. This is pleasing as Morris extends (albeit without credit) my identification of Ransome as the earliest source of the alleged statement in a 2002 article that sets the current tone of skepticism. Perhaps, in this respect, the cover of the book signals its uncertainty: it is as if the title Declaring His Genius had been decided upon before the author researched the remark.
Conversely, however, the author misreads Wilde’s approach to his namesake Clara Morris by mistaking Wilde’s appraisal of her acting as genuine. In reality Oscar’s opinion of her was merely his trademark flattery intended to seduce her into accepting his play, and Wilde was, in fact, later critical of her acting and character.
The latter-day Morris also asserts that Wilde won the Newdigate prize ‘almost as an afterthought’ and surprised ‘himself, by graduating from Oxford.’ This is a simplistic reading and a good example of falling prey to the anecdotal Wilde. The evidence is that Wilde studied hard to achieve his college distinctions. As Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson) has explained, it took ‘considerable application as his contemporaries later testified and his surviving Oxford notebooks demonstrate’. 
The lack of thoroughness is disappointing because the early signs of the book are promising. There is a sometimes pleasing command of sentence structure buoyed by a lively step along the well trodden path. But any hope that the book would expand into a nuanced, postmodern, view of Wilde is not realized. It is clear that Morris does not regard coherence as essential to biography, but neither does he think of it as a flaw. This is evidenced by two pages that detail the Guiteau trial after which Morris nonchalantly begins the next paragraph by saying that Wilde took no notice of it. This failure to see Wilde in a connected way reveals a lack of critical interpretation. Perhaps that is why the more one reads, the more the book tends towards formula, and the method of composition settles down into a series of snippets of Wilde interviews and articles pieced together with potted biographies of selected personalities.
Some of these personalities have relevance to Wilde’s time in America, such as D’Oyly Carte’s representative Colonel W. F. Morse or his touring manager J. S. Vale, but they warrant no biography at all. This is no doubt because little is known about them, but was this not the opportunity to try and find out? Even for others, of whom biography is known, the identification is ill-disciplined. In mentioning Florence Balcombe, Wilde’s first love, we do not learn, for example, how Wilde’s previous experience with women might have informed his social activity in 1882; but we are told, as if it mattered, that over 40 years later Balcombe tried to destroy all known prints of the silent film Nosferatu. Or, in the case of George Siddons Murray, the captain of steamship Arizona on which Wilde crossed the Atlantic, it seems legitimate to tell us a little about his background, but shouldn’t we have been spared the theatrical career of his great-grandmother? Even Jumbo the elephant, who also toured America in 1882, need have no fear of being under-trivialized, for while it is tempting to remind us that Jumbo now means large because of the elephant’s name, did we really need to know the Swahili derivation of the word?
With semi-related characters, Morris is equally fickle. Nat Goodwin, as a minor vaudeville comedian who happened to pop in to see Wilde between acts, may be tangential, but irrelevancy is stretched to breaking point when we are told that his future fifth wife would one day be a friend of the, as yet, unborn actress Evelyn Nesbit.
Or, take Thomas Wentworth Higginson whose sole connection to Wilde was that he had written an article about him in February 1882; yet he is given more than three pages of padding during which we are invited to learn about his war record down to the scar on his chin—another example of Morris’ all too often reverting to his military roots. Indeed, the miltary tone is set early as the book begins by saying that Americans were still reeling from the Civil War. Whether they were or not 17 years after the event is one thing, but suggesting that Oscar’s knee breeches would alter their thinking about masculinity, as if that were some sort of postwar reaction, is a little absurd.
As for characters who are unrelated to Wilde, one might hope that Morris would be more circumspect, but again one would be disappointed. So any reader intent on exploring Wildean adventures is subjected to tales of US senator James Lane hiding in a cornfield almost 20 years earlier, Winston Churchill visiting the zoo aged 8, and Abe Lincoln not resting easy ‘these days’ which in Morris’ terms means a grave robbing story that occurred in 1876. The question of how low such irrelevant trivia might be plumbed is settled by a passing reference to P. T. Barnum who, we are told, once owned a shaved monkey with a ‘fishtail glued to its bottom.’
Taken on these terms the book may have a purpose for non-Wildeans seeking an introduction to this period of his life, or for specialists not averse to a capricious treatment of their subject.
My conclusion is to revert to channeling Cheveley, whose reason for calling things by their proper name was that it makes everything simpler. So let us be concise about the book’s measure: it seems longer than it is, broader than it needs to be, but not as deep as one would have hoped.
© John Cooper, 2015.
 See: www.theguardian.com/books/2007/aug/29/oscarwilde.bestbooks
18 thoughts on “Identity Crisis”
Good man, John!
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John, that’s one hell of a review! I could not have done better myself nor as well. Your knowledge of Wilde is thorough and wonderful. Thank you. It was so much fun to read and (with the addendum list of line by line goofs) I will enjoy reading it again and again, not just for the information but the fun.
I would give Morris a break in labeling the Beatles as Celts. After all, Lennon and McCartney are Irish names and I believe Liverpool is a center of longtime Irish immigration. Their tone is very romantic, Celtic. The Rolling Stones are much more English.
You sure hit a lot of nails on the head with this one, Mr. Cooper. I wonder if Morris will read it? You may start a new Revolutinary War. I’m on your side! I found him a pain in the rear, too, especially his first chapter which is what you so aptly label “gratuitous(ly) appropriated in second-hand anecdotes” – though it was in reading his book that I was inspired to write a couple of articles on Oscar as the complete Environmentalist (one article of which the American editor fouled the first paragraph).
I was mentioning to Nephtha how many biographers and critics I find who condescend to the geniuses about whom they write (Barbara Belford (? spelling) is another) – They are like pole vaulters who leap over their subject to enhance themselves.
Thanks for a real pleasure John – much needed in this giddy world and even in the cooler weather we’ve been having for a couple of days here in Oakland. I’d be honored to be visited by you if you come this way – a little like Wilde’s visit to Uncle Walt, as my students used to call him.
Best wishes and God bless you. What a fine piece of writing. You should do some more books! Please.
Bravo! Your turn, Morris – but I think you don’t stand a chance – better creep out of the ring.
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Thank you, Peter, most kind. BTW, the list of errata has increased by another half dozen or so since it was first published.
Chere Maitre, merci beaucoup. America is alive and well – with English help (and I hope, Irish) Peadar (Peter)
Ouch! Talk soon, still under water at work.
What a bizarre work this Morris book is. It seems to be a concatenation of multiple irrelevancies. Your review is like a well-made scalpel, dissecting the inanities.
I am reminded by Morris of Capote’s comment to Mailer about the speed with which Mailer wrote — “that’s not writing, Norman, that’s typing.”
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Good but there are a few good points in Mr Morris’ book – as JC says, for a novice to read.
Novices are so easily misinformed , trusting print and not knowing wheat from chaff.
Yet, who has not been a novice?
Let me expand on what I meant by the book having some value as an introduction to Wilde. The overall effect can only be to popularize Oscar Wilde, which is not a bad thing in itself, and there are those for whom the deficiencies in analysis, accuracy, or relevance, are not crucial. First are those who don’t care for the historical Wilde, but whose interest in him as a personality informs their future self. Then there are the ‘novices’, as you call them; the value for them will be in having prompted an interest to know more. After that, the responsibility for truth will the theirs, although one wishes that biographers would be more fastidious and painstaking in the first place.
As usual John, I agree with you. By the way, could you tell me how old Oscar was when Poems was published? Twenty-six? I’m writing a little appreciation of one poem therein, for starters. Peter Garland
Wilde was 26 years, and just about 8 months, when ‘Poems’ was published in the UK in June, 1881. Of course, many of the poems date from several years earlier, and some had already been published in various periodicals, when Wilde was much younger.
Yes, I know. You are the greatest, J.C! Peter