Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity

Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity

by David M. Friedman

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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 reckoning—arrived 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 pillows—and 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 Colorado—then the richest on earth—where 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 media—Wilde gave 100 interviews in America, more than anyone else in the world in 1882—he 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 capitalism—an unforgettable story that teaches us about our present as well as our past.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Liesl Schillinger

In his new biography of the Irish playwright, novelist and provocateur…David M. Friedman argues that Wilde was among the very first to realize that celebrity could come before accomplishment…Oscar Wilde may indeed have deliberately made himself a commodity, as Friedman shows, and the reproducibility of his image and words can't be denied. What makes him irreplaceable, however, is what was inimitable in him: the genius he reputedly declared upon setting foot in New York Harbor on a January day in 1882—a genius that, whether he declared it or not, he possessed.

Publishers Weekly

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.)

Bob Blaisdell - Christian Science Monitor

Friedman is savvy and strong-minded; he enjoys and for the most part admires Wilde’s genius for publicity. Friedman always keeps the amazing soon-to-be dazzling author in the forefront, even as a thesis about celebrity drives the narrative forward… [A] swift, fascinating chronicle.

Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe

Smart, entertaining.

Jennie Rathbun - Lambda Literary

Friedman argues his case unassailably, using well-chosen examples of Wilde’s genius for self-promotion… As Friedman draws connections between Wilde’s tour and our world of celebrity worship, what might have been merely an amusing series of nineteenth-century anecdotes takes on a compelling relevance for the modern-day reader… An extremely engaging, well-researched book.

Times (UK)

[F]ascinating… Not many biographers will have sifted through the archives of the St Louis Post Dispatch for February 1882, for example, yet Friedman yields interesting facts and figures about the itinerary.

Liesl Schillinger - New York Times Book Review

Friedman argues that Wilde was among the very first to realize that celebrity could come before accomplishment.

Ben Yagoda

David M. Friedman’s Wilde in America is hugely fun to read—lively, smart, and well-written. With insightful observations and deftly chosen anecdotes, details, and quotes, Friedman shows us a new side of an author we thought we knew well. Long before he started writing the plays and books for which he’d become famous, Oscar Wilde was working single-mindedly toward an unusual goal: he wanted to be famous for being famous. In the ultimate fish-out-of-water story, Friedman shows us the culmination of this effort: the breeches-wearing aesthete’s lecture tour of the United States in 1882, a yearlong self-marketing campaign that blazed a path that aspiring celebrities are following today—whether they realize it or not.

John Capouya

Oscar Wilde and Gorgeous George never met, of course, but, if they had, I’m sure they would have enjoyed each other immensely. Both understood the importance of image in marketing, and, equally relevant, each grasped the possibilities opened up by gender-bending in the creation of that image. What makes David M. Friedman’s book so fascinating is the way he chronicles how intelligently—and amusingly—Wilde worked to pioneer those connections while touring America in 1882, long before he became Oscar Wilde the famous writer. His goal then was to become Oscar Wilde the famous person. It’s a joy to read how he did it.

John Matteson

No one knows for sure whether Oscar Wilde really told a New York customs officer that he had ‘nothing to declare but his genius.’ But David M. Friedman’s new and spirited account of Wilde’s 1882 tour of the United States does some marvelous declaring of its own. Part homage to the high priest of nineteenth-century aestheticism and part how-to guide for celebrity wanna-bes, Wilde in America is riveting reading from cover to cover. Friedman’s account brims with lush descriptions and often glitters with a lightness of touch and acerbic wit that Wilde himself might have admired.

The Tablet

"...engrossing, entertaining gem of a book..."

Roger Lewis

"...fascinating study...Not many biographers will have sifted through the archives of the St Louis Post Dispatch for February 1882, for example, yet Friedman yields interesting facts and figures about the itinerary."”

The Independent

"...impeccably-researched and absorbing chronicle..."

Kirkus Reviews

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.

Library Journal

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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393063172
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/06/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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