Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrityby David M. Friedman
The story of Oscar Wilde’s landmark 1882 American tour explains how this quotable literary eminence became famous for being famous.On January 3, 1882, Oscar Wilde, a twenty-seven-year-old “genius”at least by his own reckoningarrived in New York. The Dublin-born Oxford man had made such a spectacle of himself in London with his eccentric fashion sense, acerbic wit, and extravagant passion for art and home design that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote an operetta lampooning him. He was hired to go to America to promote that work by presenting lectures on interior decorating. But Wilde had his own business plan. He would go to promote himself.And he did, traveling some 15,000 miles and visiting 150 American cities as he created a template for fame creation that still works today. Though Wilde was only the author of a self-published book of poems and an unproduced play, he presented himself as a “star,” taking the stage in satin breeches and a velvet coat with lace trim as he sang the praises of sconces and embroidered pillowsand himself. What Wilde so presciently understood is that fame could launch a career as well as cap one.David M. Friedman’s lively and often hilarious narrative whisks us across nineteenth-century America, from the mansions of Gilded Age Manhattan to roller-skating rinks in Indiana, from an opium den in San Francisco to the bottom of the Matchless silver mine in Coloradothen the richest on earthwhere Wilde dined with twelve gobsmacked miners, later describing their feast to his friends in London as “First course: whiskey. Second course: whiskey. Third course: whiskey.”But, as Friedman shows, Wilde was no mere clown; he was a strategist. From his antics in London to his manipulation of the mediaWilde gave 100 interviews in America, more than anyone else in the world in 1882he designed every move to increase his renown. There had been famous people before him, but Wilde was the first to become famous for being famous. Wilde in America is an enchanting tale of travel and transformation, comedy and capitalisman unforgettable story that teaches us about our present as well as our past.
In 1882, Oscar Wilde’s American tour made him the second-most famous Briton in the States after Queen Victoria; in this biography, Friedman (The Immortalists) uses the occasion to make argument that “Wilde invented modern celebrity.” Before writing his widely acclaimed plays, Wilde first became “famous for being famous” by lecturing on Aestheticism to provincial audiences and being seen among established celebrities such as Walt Whitman and Ulysses S. Grant. His strived for fame or, at the very least, notoriety, such that even the lukewarm and negative press on his American tour served his purposes. (Later in the book, Friedman discusses the 1895 sodomy trials that made Wilde truly notorious and destroyed him in the bargain—there is indeed such a thing as bad publicity.) Friedman provides more insights on Wilde’s strategies on achieving celebrity than on the concept of celebrity itself. His claim that Wilde invented modern celebrity is overstated on its face, and it does not become more edifying once details are supplied. Wilde’s nine “principles of fame creation,” around which Friedman organizes his chapters are merely clichés about celebrity (“Work the Room”), and none of them can seriously be attributed to Wilde. However, Friedman vividly chronicles the early part of Wilde’s career—a little-known but crucial period. He may not show how Wilde invented celebrity, but he certainly shows how Wilde invented Wilde. 16 pages of illus. Agent: David Black, David Black Literary Agency. (Oct.)
An account of the notorious author’s American tour.In 1882, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) set out for a yearlong American lecture tour, backed by Richard D’Oyly Carte, whose production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettaPatiencehad just opened in the United States. Because its central character parodied an aesthete—a social type unfamiliar to Americans—Carte surmised that putting the young man on display would pique interest and increase ticket sales. As Friedman (The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever,2007, etc.) shows, Wilde was eager to comply. The 27-year-old, author of a single volume of poems that had garnered tepid reviews, lusted after fame. In London, he insinuated himself into circles of the rich and famous, convinced that stardust rubs off. An exhibitionist, he believed that “life is a performance,” and he enacted “an opera of opportunism” everywhere he went. Following Wilde through his American travels, Friedman focuses each chapter on one of Wilde’s revelations about how to become a celebrity: “Take Your Show on the Road,” “Build Your Brand,” “Work the Room,” “Strike a Pose,” “Celebrity is Contagious,” “The Subject is Always You,”“Promoteis Just Another Word forProvoke,” “Keep Yourself Amused” and “Go Where You’re Wanted (and Even Where You’re Not)”—i.e., “bad publicity is still publicity.” These ideas overlap, as do the chapters themselves, which detail Wilde’s foppish sartorial choices, from shoulder-length hair to patent-leather shoes, and describe a multitude of receptions, train trips, and delivery of each lecture on beauty, home decoration or the English Renaissance. In some cities, fashionable people filled the halls, but Wilde faced half-empty rooms in places where his reputation for being “the sovereign of insufferables” preceded him. Several amusing anecdotes stand out, such as Wilde’s first meeting with Walt Whitman, himself “a self-taught genius at self-promotion.”Although Friedman fashions a lively narrative, this book does not significantly embellish the already well-known image of the outrageous, self-aggrandizing Wilde.
This is literary history light—history as entertainment—but it's good literary history light. Friedman (The Immortalists) has written an entertaining account of an event of mid-level importance in the life of the flamboyant, ever-self-promoting Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). That event was Wilde's grueling lecture tour of America in 1882; an occasion that, writes Friedman, presaged the techniques of many of today's seekers of instant fame. At that early stage in his life, Wilde had little to offer beside his larger-than-life persona. He proved adept at promoting it, at one point sitting for more than 100 press interviews in the course of three months. It didn't matter to him whether the coverage was good or bad—it kept him in the public's eye. This is Friedman's third work of this type and he does it well. But he's a raconteur rather than a scholar. For all the apparent similarities between Wilde's actions and the literature on creating one's own buzz, the analytical passages in this otherwise delightful book are embarrassingly thin. VERDICT Wilde and America is an irresistible combination. Despite its shortcomings, this lively account will attract many readers. [See Prepub Alert, 5/4/14.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- New Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)
Meet the Author
David M. Friedman is the author of Wilde in America, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis and The Immortalists:
Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and
Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.
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