Making (Up) Oscar Wilde

Making Oscar Wilde” by Michèle Mendelssohn
Oxford University Press (2018)

Reviewed by: John Cooper

One of the most noteworthy contributions to the recent surge in Wildean material has been Michèle Mendelssohn’s treatise Making Oscar Wilde (2018).

As the title suggests, it is an attempt to establish a premise for the shaping of Wilde’s persona—the latest in a history of such perspectives which has included disquisitions via his Irish roots, his American experience, his men, his women, his friends, his enemies, his wit, his letters, his published works, his unpublished works, his recorded life, his unrecorded life, and, for good measure, his afterlife.

Now Making Oscar Wilde takes a potentially useful and probably unique view through the prism of Wilde’s racial profile. On surface reading the work has much to commend it—but to discover whether it works as a construction we will have to disassemble it.

One is soon aware upon reading Making Oscar Wilde that it contains informed and sound analysis of Wilde’s past and present life which is often enlightening and well researched.

The narrative is chronological but soon a recurring theme emerges. Between and intersecting some of the valid biographical vignettes is a more controversial subject which becomes the book’s raison d’être. The composition of this theme rests upon three strata: first is the background of the cultural atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, and in particular a perceived synthesis of Irish and African-American ethnicities; second is the story of Wilde’s social placement at the nexus of this cultural convergence as contrived by himself, his management and the press during his 1882 lecture tour of America; and finally, an agenda to show how the formative Wilde was influenced by, and possibly acquiesced to, the ethnic climate of his time.

The first of these premises succeeds as well as one would expect from a cultural historian. Mendelssohn’s exposition of how immigrant Irish and Southern blacks in America were similarly treated and depicted in the late nineteenth century—usually with hostility—provides Wilde studies with a creative frame of reference. She sets the stage insightfully with a backdrop of research from unexpected sources such as delving into Queen Victoria’s diary. Overlaying the research are cultural observations including how Wilde’s visit to America in 1882 emerged from an era of British ignorance of all things American, and African-Americans in particular. One interesting feature is Mendelssohn’s diagnosis of Wilde via media constructs at the opposite ends of her study: nineteenth century cartoons and twenty-first century post-truth.

Given that the author is also an Associate Professor in Oxford’s English Faculty, it is no surprise, either, that her prose proceeds succinctly enough, often with a poetic flow and a style pleasingly punctuated by literary form. There is a catchy consonance in her metaphor describing the emblems associated with Wilde as “catnip for copycats”. She is also mindful of irony in showing us how Cecil Rhodes, that epitome of African imperialism, was once refused a place at a college that later admitted one of Britain’s first ever black students. And there is the fresh assertion that Gilbert and Sullivan’s Wildean operetta Patience suggests itself as an allegory for the oppositions that beset the age between traditional imperial values and an artistic and youthful counter culture.

In the second stratum of the piece—the period events and personalities of the story—Mendelssohn complements knowledge with sound fieldwork to reveal Wilde’s popular cross-cultural experience during his American tour of 1882. Examples of effective drilling down to primary sources include the debunking of a report that Wilde witnessed a lynching in Louisiana; the positing of how Wilde’s penchant for trivial detail and artificiality can be traced back to the American actor Hermann Vezin; a valuable contribution in identifying Wilde’s mysterious American manager Colonel W. F. Morse; and a laudable attempt at identifying his even more mysterious black valet.

It is when Mendelssohn strays from her area of study into the canonical biography that she occasionally loses her way. Without first testing the terrain she takes the well-trodden shortcut of abandoning research in favor of reading the published works. This includes traversing the treacherous landscape of Lewis and Smith’s rich but often unsourced account Oscar Wilde Discovers America, 1882 (1936). Consequently, the book periodically falls prey to anecdote including:

—repeating the easily debunked canard (p.13) that Wilde’s mother intentionally dressed the young Oscar in girls’ clothing; [1]

—following the long-held assumption that Wilde had his cello-shaped coat made for the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 (p. 32)—a misreading corrected and clarified in my original research into the story and subsequent corroboration on this blog;

—subscribing to the belief that Wilde and/or his manager waived the fee that photographer Napoleon Sarony traditionally gave to celebrities to secure their image; indeed Mendelssohn goes further and makes a rare assertion that Wilde’s manager actually paid Sarony (p. 68). The reverse is certainly the case as I demonstrated in a definitive article “The Sarony Photographs of Oscar Wilde” for The Wildean, July 2019.

But such sins of omission are pleasingly few, and admittedly more discernible to one who has made a parallel study. Therefore, purely based on errata there is certainly no reason to replicate my resolute review of Declaring His Genius, by Roy Morris, Jr. (2013) with its litany of inaccuracies. Indeed, where that book notoriously introduced extraneous historical trivia and characters, Mendelssohn’s supporting cast critically supports the story with relevance. One exception that strained, however, (p. 246) was the gratuitous insertion of the 1895 Lumière brothers’ development of the film camera for the sole purpose of comparing Wilde’s mind in prison to “a private cinema”.

But so far so good, and if my assessment were to end here I would endorse the favorable consensus extended to the book by the generalist reviewer. The problem with that consensus, however, is that Making Oscar Wilde is not a generalist book. Its evaluation requires either prior knowledge or further analysis. To put this another way: it used to be a criticism that generalist reviewers had not actually read the book; the irony in this case is that they have only read the book.

Hence a third strata of review is required to unearth a possible fault-line—an agenda wherein may lie the less forgivable sins of commission.

Academia Nuts

One used to romanticize the cap-and-gown lifestyle of the university don shambling through leafy cloisters and leafing through libraries in the lazy pursuit of truth. Surely, this pinnacle of honest scholarship would never be subject to scrutiny? Recently, however, my ivy-clad utopia was undone by an overworked professor at an Oscar Wilde Society event who described how the old-school idyll of idleness has been supplanted by a modern collegiate conveyor belt of churning out books and papers at regular intervals in order to compete.

This excerpt from an academic blog explains why it’s goodbye Mr Chips:

The ultimatum is well known to academics: publish original research, or risk damaging your reputation—or even losing a professorship. Not only must academics publish research to remain relevant, but doing so is a requirement—a key performance indicator—at many universities. Publishing rates can be used to determine an academic’s value at an institution, and they can play a role in determining who will be granted tenure.

Could this ‘publish or perish’ imperative have been a driving force in Making Oscar Wilde? Could the making in fact be—as some independent scholars suspect—an over-reaching effort to tie Wilde too closely to the ethnic milieu that the book evokes?

The author herself tells us that immediately after being puzzled by a newly-found racial connection involving Wilde, she put the idea aside for years. Was the hiatus perhaps conveniently awaiting the next scholarly thesis?

Not that Wildean theses are a bad idea in themselves: indeed much of the academic Wilde is actually readable—particularly from Nicholas Frankel. Neither is there anything amiss if a thesis becomes an agenda—provided the agenda is cogent. The danger in this case would be to treat Wilde any differently from the myriad others who were also subject to the cultural conditions of the nineteenth century. Riskier still would be to present Wilde as not only influenced by the racial milieu of the period but complicit in its racism. Such an idea would be a brave step, innovative and inspired—sensational, one might say. So it would be a pity if such an agenda ran contrary to a balanced interpretation of the evidence.

Signal Failure

In its prologue Mendelssohn explains how the book was instigated when she surprisingly found (though did not discover, it should be clarified), an Aesthetic Movement cartoon entitled “The Aesthetic Craze” portraying what she infers is Wilde as a black character. [2] But surely it is not Wilde being pictured. It would be better argued that the reverse is true: that an aspiring black character is dressed in the signature costume of the cartoon’s titular Aesthetic Craze that Wilde popularized.

At first, I thought this nuance was merely semantic: that Mendelssohn simply meant the character in the cartoon was not literally Wilde, just an Oscar-type. But she proceeds to cite several other cartoons in which, she says, “Oscar had a different ethnicity” [my emphasis]. Here again most of the characters depicted are not Wilde either; they are not even caricatures of Wilde considering they look nothing like him—they are merely cultural stereotypes accessorized as aesthetic.

Any lingering doubt about misreading this transposition was resolved in a further example of a cartoon quite clearly showing a young man resembling the ex-slave Frederick Douglass attired like Wilde; instead Mendelssohn tells us it is a “black Oscar” who resembles Frederick Douglass. (p. 122).

I began to wonder whether this inversion betrayed wishful thinking and was a suspicious signal of things to come.

Caricatures not resembling Wilde including a white American.

Suspicions begin to be realized when it becomes apparent that Making Oscar Wilde is not a book designed to oblige the devotee. Permeating the surface text one is vaguely conscious of an antipathy to towards Wilde—although this is not necessarily a bad thing, as challenging a mythology can be stimulating. But the measure of any iconoclast is contrivance: is the argument believable? Unfortunately for the public, none of the reviews of the book to date, some from renowned Wilde scholars, have tested its credibility.

The first question to be posed is why Oscar?

Hundreds of nineteenth century statesmen, celebrities and public figures interacted with dozens of cultural trends with varying relevance. Was the 1882 visit of a 27 year-old little-known poet a historically significant touchstone for America’s long struggle with integration? Or is his candidacy perhaps prompted because he is one of the few of his contemporaries who still sells books today?

Certainly no biographer of Wilde to date has seen anything in Wilde’s character or personality that fits the theme of a racial connection. Admittedly, he was the country’s leading figure of ridicule in the popular press and comic journals that year, and it should be acknowledged that the depiction of Wilde and the African-American intersected remarkably in America during 1882. In this respect Mendelssohn is to be commended for highlighting the phenomenon for the enrichment of Wilde studies, and if the book only showcased these connections it would a valuable achievement in itself.

The problem is that Wilde was only peripherally tied-in to blackface cartoons which had been a staple in American racist parody since at least the 1830s. The satire of Wilde, in fact, stemmed from his dreamy effeteness which threatened the dominion of the American white male, and his relationship to blackface cartoons has three degrees of separation. It begins with nothing more than a homophone of his name being Wild. This gave caricaturists the opportunity to personify him as uncivilized and Darwinially regressive, making him fodder for an equation with other supposed neanderthals such as the stereotypical bog-Irishman and the black plantation class. Yet, Mendelssohn allows this tenuous association to underpin much of her enthusiasm and it leads to some unsafe reasoning.

For example, a notorious cover of Harper’s Weekly in January 1882 features a monkey dressed in typically aesthetic garb worshiping a sunflower, which Mendelssohn links to Wilde as an expression of anthropomorphic racism. True, such attitudes in cartoons were not unknown at the time—but this picture is not an example of it. It is an engraving taken from a painting by William Holbrook Beard who was known for his satirical depiction of various beasts performing human activities, including bears, cats, dogs, and horses, and none them are racially motivated.

The Harper’s cover later inspired a staged photograph entitled “An Aesthetic Darkey” featuring an African-American boy sitting beside a sunflower. Mendelssohn would of course be right that this image does make a racial link with the aesthetic movement (although Wilde is not indicated) but the misreading she makes this time is in the detail. In the photograph the sunflower is incongruously placed in the neck of a piece of face-jug pottery in order to plumb the bathos between uncultivated and aesthetic worship of beauty. The problem is that folk art jugs were NOT accoutrements of parody: they were artifacts crafted by Southern slaves themselves for practical or spiritual reasons and are considered important in the cultural history of black self-identification—it should have been a delicate matter to critique them. But missing this point Mendelssohn leaps to the frankly thoughtless faux pas that the photographer had simply “added a monkey-shaped jug to emphasize the association between Wilde’s Aestheticism and monkey business” (p. 91).

In this way lies the attempt to wed Wilde to the cartoons by throwing together a confetti of dubious and disconnected tropes such as aestheticism, Irishness, and whiteness, in the hope that her “monkey-business” will be the issue of a convenient marriage.

The reductionist truth is that Wilde was not being likened to the African-American, the Chinaman, or the Paddy, any more than he was to the white American who is also included in similar examples in the book (caption plate 2). Satirists were simply throwing anything ‘other’ at the aesthetic fad that Wilde represented for would-be comic effect and such comparisons do not seem to have been racially motivated. Just a week before the “The Aesthetic Craze” appeared, Harper’s Weekly had featured Wilde in the shape of a mushroom and in another well-known image he was being likened to the moon.

Whatever the motivation behind Wilde’s connection to blackface images, the pivotal error I believe Mendelssohn makes is in relying too heavily on the parody in search of the truth. Yes, cartoonists did couple the aesthete and the negro but it does not mean that Wilde related to it; and Blackface minstrelsy did historically feature a dandified character but it does not mean that Wilde was influenced by it; and common racism did conflate the Irish and blacks as an underclass but it does not mean that Wilde subscribed to it. But the book deliberately takes of all these and more aspects of Wilde and black culture that were merely collateral and treats them as if they were congruent.

Tangled Web

The more threads of the the racial milieu that Mendelssohn weaves, the more one detects a practice to racialize Wilde. By turns of the page we are nagged by the presumption that Wilde is being inherently connected to a racial milieu rather than merely by happenstance. Worse is the more serious allegation that Wilde himself invited racist tendencies.

How does the book achieve this?

The first device is to vaguely associate Wilde with his parents’ generation. It begins with Wilde at Oxford by an overplaying of a connection to his Irish roots never mind that he had tried to disassociate himself from them. Relying on nothing more than “a suspicion of a brogue” Mendelssohn infers “his prominence as an Irishman”.  This identity theft is perpetrated so as to better link Oscar to the Irish nationalist poetry of his mother, the former Jane Elgee, which Mendelssohn quickly categorizes as white supremacy, which it wasn’t. True, Lady Wilde occasionally made statements that betray a bias, but this was essentially colonial, even xenophobic, but it was not pro-white or anti-black sentiment. But either way, these were his mother’s politics not Oscar’s.

It is true that purely for the purpose of populist flattery while traveling in the South, Wilde likened the struggles of Irish freedom and Southern emancipation, but in doing so he never made a racist hierarchy of the two causes that some Irish nationalists had done before him. Nor does he ever mention color. So why then, when Wilde merely expresses a hope that Ireland will remain in the British empire does Mendelssohn conclude that Wilde was “defending his own whiteness”? (p. 208).

The book is not content with linking Wilde to a specious political equivalence between Irishness and whiteness. In an apparent attempt to have it both ways, it goes on to spuriously lump Wilde into a cultural equivalence between Irishness and blackness. Slender ties include Plate 11 where, despite a Celtic diaspora of over five million, the caption finds significance in the fact that many blackface minstrels were “of Irish descent”. But whatever connection there was between the poverty and suppression of both classes, Wilde was not a part of it. Nobody who knew him thought of him as an Irish “paddy”. Wilde was privileged and refined. He socialized with the best of Irish society, such as the party hosted for him in New York by Marion T. Fortescue (formerly Minnie O’Shea), the Dublin-born daughter of the editor of Freeman’s Journal.

Mendelssohn made clear her purpose for this leap of faith in a slightly giddy NPR radio interview with Access Utah, when she puts forward the idea that after socializing with “poor, simple” Irish folk in America, Wilde made a “troubling” move and “conjured up the ghost” of his white supremacist uncle in the South, as if such a cross-cultural connection existed and Wilde made it intentionally.

The poor, simple folk Mendelssohn refers to were such as the Irish contingent of St. Paul, MN, who had gathered for an event attended by Wilde on St. Patrick’s Day in 1882 in the same hall where he had lectured the previous evening. Mendelssohn tells us that Wilde had a Francis I suit made specifically to wear for a talk at this event as if it were a form of gesture-politics: his purpose, apparently, was that three centuries earlier the same French monarch had once helped to negotiate an anti-English treaty, and Wilde thought looking like him would provide a “visual clue” to the audience about Irish Home Rule. One hardly needs the facts to dispute such a far-fetched conjecture, but here they are: (1) in requesting cambric ruffs and flowered sleeves Wilde was referring merely to the Francis I style of fashion, not 360 year-old politics; (2) Wilde asked that the coat be ready for his lecture in Chicago not St. Paul; and (3) in any case, Wilde’s address at the St. Patrick’s Day event was not planned—it was a short talk made impromptu. Wilde told the audience he had not expected to be called upon, and the host confirmed the same saying Wilde had kindly consented to speak.

To complete the ridiculous search for meaning in Wilde’s attire in St. Paul, Mendelssohn picks up on the report that Wilde was wearing white dress gloves, one of which Wilde had removed, no doubt because it was considered poor etiquette to offer a gloved handshake. From this Mendelssohn deduces that Wilde was prefiguring a Michael Jackson-esque “show of dissent” (p. 169). She goes on to infer meaning because minstrels also wore white gloves—which is selective nonsense because white gloves were a standard part of white-tie formal attire and (as can be seen in the Sarony Photographs) Wilde’s wore them all year round.

Such racially non-sequitur thinking leads Mendelssohn to misconflate Wilde’s plays and the minstrelsy tradition by suggesting that his 1882 exposure to the American black tradition somehow gave Wilde a “talent for comedy” (p. 237) that he did not naturally possess—which is hardly likely—never mind the fact that his comedies were a decade later, and that immediately following his American experience Wilde continued working on a five-act tragedy.

When Wilde’s comedy plays did arrive, Mendelssohn claims he placed minstrel rhythms into his dialogue (pp. 235-6). While the comic press did attempt to denigrate Wilde by suggesting such a connection, there is no evidence that Wilde’s staging of comic repartee was intentionally imitative of interlocutor minstrelsy. Mendelssohn has to accept, as she does, that Wilde the author did not actually write blackface minstrelsy, but as if protesting too much, she contrives to interpret Wilde’s figurative use of pretense in his society plays (i.e the truth of masks) as “his own kind of whiteface theatre”. Similarly for Wilde the person, Mendelssohn again accepts that Wilde “hadn’t worn either blackface or whiteface, but he had worn knee-breeches,” (p.239) a collation that defines how far one the argument requires one to stretch the imagination.

Most historian are careful to avoid a presentist view of history: i.e., judging the past by today’s standards, usually in condemning the actions of nations or communities. But because Making Oscar Wilde has a personal agenda the flaw is applied selectively.

First she indicts Wilde’s uncle John Kingsbury Elgee (who had settled in America in 1831) for slave-owning as if it were a Wilde/Elgee family trait, when, in fact, it was a way of life in the the Southern states at the time.

Similarly, she imputes a moral judgement of Wilde for attitudes and language that were common, and even acceptable, in his own time. A specific example is Wilde’s letter [3] in which he talks about his black valet. Instead of seeing the manservant as a benign and jocular novelty, as Wilde obviously did (albeit in a politically incorrect way today), Mendelssohn claims without evidence that Wilde was more thrilled to have a black slave than a white servant. The basis for this sketchy assertion is that “someone like Wilde” thought of African Americans as less than human (p. 158). The first problem with this (possibly projected) generalization is that there was no one quite like Wilde. But more pertinently, Wilde was known to be progressively egalitarian about oppression (e.g. prison reform, women’s dress reform), and if he did not think of his valet as an equal why did he famously purchase first-class train tickets for him, and insist the valet travel in first-class with him and his manager even in the South?

The narrative of the book then leads us to the contemporary Wilde and his activities in 1882, where we find ourselves further down the garden path but still no closer to home truths.

A good example is a letter Wilde sent while traveling to see Julia Ward Howe in anticipation of being a guest at her rural cottage outside Newport, RI. [4]. Conscious of imposing, Wilde wrote to Howe to say he had with him “an enormous trunk and a valet” which he mentions amusingly along with his other encumbrances such as his hat-box, trunk, portmanteau, dressing-case and his (white) secretary. This would appear to be a straightforward indication of logistics, yet Mendelssohn says Wilde’s “turn of phrase” indicates that both luggage and (black) valet were being treated like “portable property” (pp. 118-119).

Or take Wilde’s vaunted visit to the home of Jefferson Davis, the former and only President of the Confederate States. In a stretch to strengthen Wilde’s supposed allegiance to Davis, Mendelssohn says his “pilgrimage” to Beauvoir (Davis’ retirement home) meant “a detour of several hundred miles” (p. 208). It did not. Visitors to Beauvoir often stepped off the train at a station along the line that ran behind the property, arriving at the mansion a few minutes later by wagon. As Wilde was scheduled to travel along this line between his second lecture in New Orleans and his next in Biloxi, he did the same thing, as the New Orleans Times-Democrat reported at the time. Passengers also reported accompanying Wilde on his onward journey from Beauvoir Station afterwards. [5]

Mendelssohn uses the visit to Davis to reaffirm Wilde’s alleged racism. She concludes that he came to America to “end up admiring white supremacy” (p. 207)—which would almost certainly be the first such assertion about Wilde in over a century of biography. Most Wildeans can take their man warts and all. Saint Oscar was certainly no saint, indeed he was all too human. But castigating him as a white supremacist, or even aspiring him to it, or even aligning him to the white hegemony of the period any more than the next man, cannot be allowed to stand. In the Access Utah interview Mendelssohn sensationalizes Wilde’s visit to Davis ascribing it as a “shocker” and she stumbles to explain it by saying it is difficult to excuse “these days”. But it does not need excusing. He did not go to see Davis out of any sympathy with the racist politics of the Confederacy: Wilde was apolitical. His visit was simply the next in a long series he paid to celebrities for the purpose of reflected self-importance and notoriety. Any regard Wilde had for Davis was as a man of ideas, as the leader of a cause. Yes, Wilde noted that Davis’ cause was similar to the Irish struggle against suppression, but he expressed this with trademark idealism even flattering Davis and Southern vegetation in the same breath [6] and soon as Wilde had safely returned from the South he concluded that Davis was a “failure”. It is significant that in a tour-de-force of research to mine Wilde’s racial connections in 1882, the book completely fails to mention a special visit did Wilde make that year to spend the weekend with the clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher (this time it was a round-trip in the hundreds of miles). Could the reason for overlooking this important meeting of the minds be that Beecher was a staunch and active abolitionist?

After Wilde leaves America, Mendelssohn continues to find tenuous linkages to race throughout his life in order to make some kind of point. Seemingly one finds these just by opening the book, but three examples will suffice:

(1) When playwriting (p. 233):

In A Woman of No Importance the character of Lord Illingworth ascends to the peerage instead of being to the manner born. Mendelssohn finds this revelation “astonishing” because in minstrel shows it was a common burlesque for black characters to aspire to society despite their humble origins.

(2) In prison (p. 248):

One of the many books Wilde read in prison was the novel Illumination by Harold Frederic [7]. Wilde expressed interest in its subject, as well he might, as it concerns American pastor losing his religion after falling in love with a female aesthete. But Mendelssohn finds it significant because in its 500+ pages there is a single mention of lynching and blackface cartoons.

(3) Hounding Wilde to his deathbed (pp. 253-4):

The last thing the book tells us about Oscar in his exile is that he was simultaneously “tired of fighting” for his life and busy trying to stage The Importance of Being Earnest in America. The reason for this incongruity is Mendelssohn’s attempt to show that at the end of Wilde’s earthly existence he was revisiting the previous “compromises” of his plays where his “actors were lined up like minstrels”.

Mixed Message

In circumnavigating the book’s racial issue we return to a cartoon entitled ‘A Symphony in Color’ which shows Oscar (this time it is him) lost in thought surrounded by lovesick maidens à la the staging in Patience. The title is an inversion of James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) now with an inappropriate pun on the word color.

The cartoon is one of several illustrations by Charles Kendrick for a short comic biography in pamphlet form which shows Wilde at various points in his life up to 1882. [8]

The 1882 text accompanying the illustration is clear about its purpose: to show the chagrin and disgust of the male population at how the unmanly Oscar was proving attractive to the opposite sex. This notion presages Alan Sinfield’s thesis [9] that before Wilde redefined it, effeminacy was more of a lure to women than men, and in the cartoon the principle is shown applying even to the female servant class many of whom happened to be black. Reinforcing this message, the male waiter on the stairs looks down in disdain at the charade. That is all that is happening, but Mendelssohn willfully misreads both the racial and sexual messages.

Such is her eagerness to find what she calls “vectors that were converging on him” she plants two misleading interpretations. First that Wilde was being portrayed as “especially attractive to African Americans” (caption Plate 27) when there is no reason to believe it in this or any other context. Second, that in the cartoon Wilde might in fact be “gazing up at the man in the background”—when he clearly isn’t. He is top-hattedly gazing off in abstraction à la Frith’s famous panorama of the Royal Academy. [10] More preposterously, Mendelssohn refers to the “illicit suggestion” that Wilde “has his sights set on the butler” (p. 116) as if in some sexually-charged gay glance—conveniently forgetting her own assertion that people of his like thought of blacks as less than human. Moreover, how can she suggest that the cartoonist would have implied what she calls this “possible entanglement” given her own acknowledgement that in 1882 “Wilde’s homosexuality was still a secret”? (p. 135).

Colonel of Truth

To demonstrate that an agenda is systemic in the book, and not just related to the racial issue, let us look at how Mendelssohn depicts one of the story’s key characters: Colonel W. F. Morse, the man appointed by Richard D’Oyly Carte to manage Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour in America.

Not much is known about Morse and the book does a commendable job of adding to his biography. But what is still incomplete about him are details of his personality and his motives. We know he was a Civil War veteran and no doubt he was a shrewd operator, indeed some of his decisions were more strategic than sympathetic, which did not always sit well with Wilde. But he both supported and defended Oscar on several occasions when required during the tour.

However, in Making Oscar Wilde, Morse is portrayed as an unscrupulous conniver, which is puzzling given the limited amount we know about him.

Misgivings that Mendelssohn might have created a cardboard characterization of Morse begin with her whimsical hypothesis that he managed the young Oscar with a “military precision”. She asserts that Morse’s second “manoeuver” for “his army of one” was in choosing for him a photographer with a military moniker: i.e. ‘Napoleon’ Sarony (p.67). The fact that Sarony was the most successful portrait photographer in America seems less important to Mendelssohn than the dubious relevance of his given name. But this flight of fancy is harmless enough, and the general reader might forgive such flirting as poetic license towards a story about which no one can be certain.

One may even look the other way when poetic license turns to disingenuousness, such as when Mendelssohn, in trying to demonstrating Morse’s manipulativeness, says that his “first order of business” after Wilde arrived in New York in January was to make him “look like an apostle of beauty,” deceptively implying that Morse was involved in the measurements and materials of Wilde’s costume. Her brainchild being that Morse insisted on what Wilde “would have to wear”—the effect being the guise of “court jester” (p. 67). All of this thinking is skewed. There is no evidence that Morse had anything to do with Wilde’s appearance. Wilde brought the aesthetic costume with him to America, and his wearing of it was more likely a requirement of his contract with Carte. To obfuscate this Mendelssohn anachronistically parachutes into the story the design details of Wilde’s outfit as if they were Morse’s strictures. As we have already seen, these details relate to Wilde’s own design instructions that he made willingly to his tailor almost two months later when requiring new suits [11].

All of this might be considered to be a passably loose grip on biographical rigor until we discover that the book goes on to adopt the same embellished tone in a more serious character assassination of Morse. Mendelssohn variously describes Morse as shady, a hypocrite, a double-dealer, a liar, and a traitor: the author’s words not mine.

All this seems suspiciously hyperbolic for a scholarly text (she also called him the devil in the Access Utah interview) until we surmise that the journalist in Mendelssohn may have insinuated a pantomime villain into the story for the sake of sensationalizing the book’s appeal.

Again, one strives for restraint. But when poetic license goes beyond disingenuousness and becomes conspicuous distortion—as in the following case study—the historical record must be corrected.

Oscar Wilde Sees Patience
Oscar Wilde Sees Patience

The article above reports Wilde’s visit to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Patience at the Standard Theatre in New York on January 5, 1882, shortly after he arrived in America. It comes from the New York Daily Tribune of January 6, 1882, p.5 and, as far as I know, it is the only account of the event available. Indeed it is the reference that Mendelssohn uses in relating the story.

Let us compare the firsthand report in the article with how Mendelssohn translates it in her book (p. 70) using direct quotes:

ARTICLE: the entrance of Mr. Wilde and his friends was hardly noticed
BOOK: Wilde and his entourage noisily entered the theatre

ARTICLE: he finally took a seat
BOOK: he created a second commotion by moving to a seat

ARTICLE: he watched the performance carefully
BOOK: he ignored what was happening on stage

ARTICLE: he leaned towards one of the ladies and said with a smile
BOOK: Wilde announced loudly

It is striking that none of these verbal distortions is subtle: they are all diametrically opposed to the eye-witness account. We shall see how and why.

Mendelssohn insists on a commotion to enable her to create the idea that Wilde’s party aimed to “produce the maximum disturbance” when intentionally arriving late. There’s no evidence for this. It is possible that Wilde’s late arrival was owing to the events of  January 5th when he had his famous photographs taken and later attended a three-hour reception given in his honor. But I prefer the logical explanation that Wilde simply wished to avoid the crowd when arriving in the same way he did upon leaving—as the article tells us.

As for the invention of a loud announcement, it was not Wilde’s style to be rude in public. It would have been anathema to the manners he displayed, and expected of others, throughout the tour, of which there are multiple examples. Mendelssohn’s version might appear to be a fairly routine exaggeration until one realizes her subterfuge is to change the story for dramatic effect. The remark in question is Wilde’s famous allusion to “the compliment that mediocrity pays to those who are not mediocre” [12]. The article is clear that the audience turned to look at Wilde in response to a character’s entrance on the stage and before he made the remark. However, in the book Mendelssohn conveniently omits the stage entrance and by use of illusive syntax shifts the audience reaction to after the remark—as if the audience were responding to it. [13] In reality, all that the report says is that Wilde “leaned towards one of the ladies” to make the remark—which rather implies a seemly sotto voce and not an auditorium-wide declaration.

Mendelssohn describes the visit to see Patience as a stunt in which Morse and D’Oyly Carte had “compelled” Wilde to take part (p. 70). From what we know the approach to Wilde was altogether more circumspect and collaborative. Carte had written to his business partner in New York (Helen Lenoir) politely hoping that Wilde would not mind such “bunkum”. As Carte was promoting both the Wilde tour and Patience across America it was natural for him to strategize the link between the two—but Wilde hardly needed to be compelled to participate. As Carte went on to confirm, Wilde had already taken to the idea of attending the opera based on the lure of publicity and a private box —and this was before he had even arrived in America and met Mendelssohn’s evil and manipulative Morse.

What should we make of such creative writing masquerading as biography? If it came from anywhere other than a university press one might attribute it to the imagination of the story teller or the zeal of the enthusiast. Fortunately the author has provided a verdict encrypted as self-parody in the following epilogue.

Morse coda

In 1907 Morse wrote in quite complimentary fashion about Wilde’s lecture tour as part of a literary reminiscence [14]. Mendelssohn properly records his positive contribution, but as it comes later in Morse’s life, it also comes later in the book where it sits uncomfortably contrary to Mendelssohn’s argument of a monstrous man up to that point.

So how does Mendelssohn rationalize Morse’s latter-day generosity?

Her explanation is that Morse had, by then, experienced a second career in solid-waste management which had taught him the value of sanitizing garbage, and so he was similarly persuaded to clean up Wilde’s trashy reputation (page 258).


So does Mendelssohn’s take on history work as a construction as I postulated at the start?

It has certainly convinced some literary reviewers, though none, perhaps, who have conducted the collateral research which reveals that, at best, the book is beset by stretches of the imagination and, at worst, by construals that are intellectually dishonest. The author is too intelligent not to know this. So I prefer to think that the professional university publisher decreed a more academically satisfying Wilde along with a dose of sensationalism to boost sales and recognition. If that sounds coldly calculating then perhaps it is no coincidence that warmth and care are at the root of the word amateur—and it has been said that many useful contributions to Wilde studies in recent years have come largely unsolicited from independent or nonaligned scholars such as Merlin Holland, Matthew Sturgis, Thomas Wright, Robert Maguire, Eleanor Fitzsimons, Ashley Robins, Franny Moyle, Michael Seeney, Geoff Dibb, Heather White, et al.

Naturally, I am aware that not all books are perfect and Making Oscar Wilde is no different. Parts of it are very good. So what can a fellow aficionado of the Victorian cartoon do with a curate’s egg other than be guided by the politeness of the curate?

In summary, I recommend the work of all my fellow authors, not instead of, but in addition to Ms Mendelssohn. Her book will augment the body of excellent work being produced in the enrichment of Wilde’s legacy. But as the curate would discover, this one should be digested carefully.

© John Cooper, 2019

[1] Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume, 1200-2000. 2nd edition. A & C Black (Publishers) Ltd; Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2000.

“boys still wore frocks with pleated skirts, or tunics and blouses over pleated skirts, until the age of three or four”.

[2] Joseph Donohue (The Wildean January, 2019) takes the same view while curiously describing the image as having “Irish cultural values”.

The Wildean, journal of the Oscar Wilde Society. Join here:

[3] Complete Letters, 127.

[4] Complete Letters, 175.

[5] The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA), June 17, 3, and June 30, 1882. See also MS History Now.

[6] The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), Jul7 12, 1882, 6.

[7] The Damnation of Theron Ware, Harold Frederic (1896), first published in England as Illumination.

[8] Ye Soul Agonies in Ye Life of Oscar Wilde (1882), Illustrated by Charles Kendrick.

[9] Alan Sinfield , The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment (1994).

[10] A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, painting by William Powell Frith.

[11] Wilde’s letter to Morse (Complete Letters p.141) has an overview of the tailoring requirement, but for the measurements etc., were revealed in the press, e.g. The Daily Evening Register (Hudson, NY), May 10, 1882.

See also John Cooper, Oscar Wilde On Dress, CSM Press (2013), p. 13.

[12] Four days later during his first lecture in America Wilde had updated the remark to “the homage which mediocrity pays to genius”, The New York Times, January 10, 1882, 5.

[13] Knowledge of the remark probably emerged later having been overheard or revealed via interview.

[14] The Writings of Oscar Wilde: His Life, With a Critical Estimate of His Writings (1907). London; New York : A. R. Keller. Ch. IV ‘American Lectures’.

I am grateful to Matthew Sturgis for inspiring this article.

7 thoughts on “Making (Up) Oscar Wilde

  1. Her section on Wilde’s Oxford days is particularly thin, I presume her intention is to build up her theory that it all centres on America. Where is the Hinksey Road? Plus a real gaff over Torpids! Hope her Oxford colleagues put her straight. Looking forward to your piece in the Wildean


    1. Thanks Anne. I don’t mind the book being a selective biography (which I allude to at the start) particularly a focus on America which was very formative and is my area of study. But being narrow it’s a shame that it did not have more depth.


  2. Thanks for this, John. A lot of things here I hadn’t spotted for myself. I think my first impressions might have been improved if the book had been marketed primarily as an examination of Wilde and race rather than as a general account of his time in North America.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right it would have been better as an examination of Wilde and race only, but that would have made the agenda overt. As it is it hijacks the 1882 tour about which one could write an equal and opposite book about how he was privately well-liked and acted with equanimity in the face of public ridicule, and was far more respectful of race than the satirists whom MM believes were chroniclers of actuality.


  3. Quite a review. I have only started Making Oscar Wilde, and I look forward to finishing it, so I can’t comment on it.

    I did find the underlying question of the commercialization of academic publishing interesting. Just the other day I was reading about a new economics journal called “Series of Unsurprising Results” that aims to counter the publication bias in favor of counterintuitive, surprising results. It will be full of things like replication studies and hypotheses that didn’t pan out or were just as you might expect. I love the idea and was going to do a blog post on the subject of publication bias and how it shapes what books are created and what stories are told. I still might one day when I have time.

    Sometimes the hook that you use in your proposal to get a contract doesn’t quite pan out by the time you finish the book. I’d put a lot of stuff in my proposal about how it was going to be the first book to explore Lord Alfred Douglas’s relationship with Maurice Schwabe– because the idea of revealing a character who has been hidden seemed like an easier hook than trying to sell the idea that you’re going to do a good job researching something known but not explored in that way before. I guess that helped sell it because the publisher wanted to use the Schwabe angle as a selling point for the finished book over my objections–mainly because I thought it too esoteric. The first book to tell the story of someone you’ve never heard of!

    In the end, Schwabe was a minor aspect of the book, and most of my research on him ended up on the cutting room floor for space. Had I not done that it would have been a bizarre tangential data dump. (Ah, but how tempted I was to do it anyway.) Hopefully all that work will find its way into a future book, but I’m still hoping to discover some smoking gun that proves he was the gay James Bond or something so I can find a publisher. If I don’t, it is liable to end up self-published or languishing on my hard drive.

    So I like the idea of marketing a book with “You are not interested in this subject at all! Still worth a read!” Being outside academia certainly doesn’t shield you from the imperative to find something novel or shocking. I’m surprised that no one has written an “Oscar Wilde was Jack the Ripper” book yet. (As far as I know.) I have no doubt they could get a contract.


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