Monday, November 3, 2014

Oscar Wilde in America

Did the Irish writer invent celebrity? To quote:
It just might be, however, that Wilde's most enduring legacy isn't literary. It is cultural, in the largest sense of that term. For Oscar Wilde did more than create a body of work that's now in the Western canon. He created an enduring part of the world we all live in.

That part isn't a geographical entity. It is a constellation of values, attitudes, and poses. It is a mind-set where everyone thinks they could be famous and, even more to the point, should be. It is a belief system in which "celebrity," a word that once referred exclusively to persons of achievement--artists, athletes, politicians, and so on, even criminals, who left their mark on history through their deeds--has expanded its meaning to include persons famous merely for being famous, a status won by manipulating the media. It is a worldview where fame isn't the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.

Wilde called it into existence in 1882 in America, where he engaged in a nearly yearlong speaking tour, a tour de force of showmanship--and, more often than not, showboatmanship--that touched down in thirty states, covered approximately fifteen thousand miles, generated more than five hundred newspaper and magazine articles, earned him more money than he had ever earned in his life, and, when it was over, made him the second-most-famous Briton in America, behind only Queen Victoria. (Not bad for a writer who, at this point in his career, had only written a self-published book of poems and an unproduced play.) This "product launch" was all the more remarkable because Wilde had no training in business and only a little more in public speaking. In an era populated by several of the greatest product marketers in America's history--a list that includes H. J. Heinz, Milton Hershey, and Levi Strauss--Oscar Wilde, whose only product was a self-adoring dandy named Oscar Wilde, may have been the best of them all.

Other Europeans--Dickens and Tocqueville, to name but two--had toured our country before Wilde. But they came to learn about America; Wilde came so America could learn about him. Meeting his audiences in an impossible-to-ignore ensemble--satin breeches, black silk stockings, silver-buckled pumps, and a snug velvet coat with lace trim--Wilde sold himself to the American public as a "Professor of Aesthetics," a title for which he had no authentic certification, in roughly one hundred fifty lectures (most of them on interior decorating) that brought him face to face with farmers, poets, socialites, preachers, factory workers, prospectors, prostitutes, southern belles, Harvard intellectuals, and, if a newspaper account is accurate, a detachment of Texas Rangers who bestowed upon him the rank of colonel.

Traveling by rail, carriage, and, when absolutely necessary, mule, Wilde spoke on tasteful home design to crowds ranging from twenty-five to twenty-five hundred, often embellishing his advice with excerpts from his favorite poems. Maybe it's not surprising some American reporters mocked him as an "ass-thete" and, when other insults failed, as "she." But those rude hacks underestimated their target. Beneath Wilde's delicate persona--the rouge-wearing dandy languidly flinging his hand to his brow as he sang the praises of sconces and embroidered pillows--was a man on a serious mission: to make himself a star, no matter how little he had done (so far) to deserve it. (Read more.)

No comments: