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 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.

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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 evolutionary successor The Decorative Arts, and his usual alternative 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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Conspicuous (Even By His Absence)

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Oscar Wilde could be found almost everywhere in 1882

The phenomenon of Wilde’s US ubiquity 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 other factors: 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 well known.

Take the world of advertising.

Wilde was such a cultural phenomenon during 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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