Identity Crisis | Book Review: Declaring His Genius

Book Review: Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde In North America, by Roy Morris, Jr.

morris-coverBY 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 a 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]

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.

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Oscar Wilde’s Pony Tale

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Today is April 14, but what has it to do with Oscar Wilde, St Joseph, and the Pony Express?

April 14 is noted in history for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln as well as the sinking of the Titanic, however, the Google Doodle for today celebrates the 155th anniversary of the first Pony Express rider, whose journey to the west coast originated in St. Joseph, MO.  Google must know best because its choice for the day means we can cue Oscar Wilde.

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Oscar Wilde’s Pants Down Again

Another notable advertisement featuring Oscar Wilde on his lecture tour of America in 1882. This time his pants.

Further to my recent post featuring advertisements that used Oscar Wilde’s name and image during his lecture tour, here is another notable example. It shows Oscar in a quite demure pose as if he had something to hide. But fear not, he is bare only below the knee.

Wilde’s long hair and knee-breeches excited many a soirée in 1882, prompting one commentator to note that Oscar “pants” after a certain celebrity, but that he should make it two because a pair of pants is something he obviously needs.

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Oscar Wilde on Irish Poets

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Oscar Wilde’s lecture in San Francisco on Irish Poets

On this day in 1882 [1] at Platt’s Hall, Oscar Wilde delivered the ninth of ten consecutive lectures in California, and his fourth and last in San Francisco.

As San Francisco was the only city in America where Wilde lectured four times, he needed an additional lecture to add to the three he was already giving, which were: The English Renaissance, its successor The Decorative Arts, and The House Beautiful.

[See Lecture Titles for the development of Wilde’s lecture topics].

Wilde chose as his subject Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century (referred to in some texts as The Irish Poets of ’48), an idea he had hinted at on St.Patrick’s Day in St.Paul, where he made a rare expression of Irish nationalist sentiment.

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A Scene at Long Beach

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The intrigue that followed a chance meeting with Oscar Wilde in 1882

A young girl whom Oscar Wilde met on vacation in 1882 became the lover of Wilde’s future niece and also had an affair with Wilde’s own lover’s future wife.

Confused? Then read on.

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Sam Ward, also seated in the above illustration.

It all began when Sam Ward, the author, gourmand and political lobbyist who had taken Wilde under his wing in America, invited him to Long Beach, the seaside resort on Long Island, New York.

After the holiday, on July 31, 1882, Ward wrote to his niece Maud Howe [1]:

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Conspicuous (Even By His Absence)

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Oscar Wilde could be found almost everywhere in 1882

This phenomenon has been well-documented, most recently in David Friedman’s Wilde in America (2014) which portrays Wilde as being so intent upon fame that he had a strategy for achieving it—a view with much validity.

Whatever Wilde’s personal strategy was, however, he was compounded in the effort by his own tour publicity, the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience and its burlesques, and a general curiosity of the people to see him. As a result, one might wonder whether it is possible to be too ubiquitous.

Take the world of advertising.

Wilde was so famous on his American tour that his name was used by advertisers to generate media exposure for products with which he had no connection.

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More on Boys’ Names

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The source of Oscar Wilde’s pun on Ernest/Earnest

In an earlier article I tried to show that in John Gambril Nicholson’s verse Of Boys’ Names (Wilde’s putative source of the Ernest/Earnest pun) there are other boys’ names with Wildean parallels.

Research now leads me to a further connection.

In a back issue of The Book Collector (Summer, 1978), there is chapter about Nicholson’s 1892 Love in Earnest: Sonnets, Ballades, and Lyrics (the anthology  that includes the poem in question).

Continue reading More on Boys’ Names