Oscar Wilde, Superstar: The First Post-Modern Celebrity


Oscar Wilde’s 1882 journey to America continues to fascinate, and why not?

Everyone loves a fish out of water story, so the true saga of a Victorian dandy roughing it on the wild American frontier, hanging out with (and winning over) rugged coal miners and cowboys is pretty irresistible.

(That Wilde’s garish velvet get-ups clothed a beefy 6’3″ Irishman perfectly capable of beating up bullies no doubt surprised and delighted his new admirers.)

It’s a tale that’s been told many times: in books, of course, but also in plays, movies and on television shows.

Now a new book revisits Wilde’s visit to the New World, but with a twist.

David M. Friedman’s Wilde in America presents his subject as the proto-Kardashian:

That is, as the first post-modern celebrity — one who, to borrow Daniel Boorstin’s, well, famous concept, is “famous for being famous.”

If that seems unfair to the acclaimed playwright, essayist, poet, children’s author (and gay movement mascot), Friedman reminds readers that when Oscar Wilde stepped off the ship onto America’s shores, he was, in fact, none of those things.


Wilde’s well-known quip to the New York custom’s official — “I have nothing to declare but my genius” — was ironically accurate.

As Friedman tells it:

It’s worth noting that at this point, Wilde was barely out of college, and had still never delivered a lecture in his life nor really accomplished anything save for winning a college poetry prize and releasing a little-read book of poems.

If Wilde was known for anything at the time, it was his wit, flamboyant fashion sense, and his self-appointed position as the leader of the “aesthetic movement,” which, like so many artistic and literary “schools” before and since, was approximately 90% high-minded hooey.

That’s precisely why Gilbert & Sullivan chose to spoof it via their comic opera “Patience,” which starred, naturally enough, a Wilde-like character named “Bunthorne,” who swanned about waving a calla lily and mouthing “deep” gnomic tidbits about art and beauty.

There was just one problem:

Desiring to launch “Patience” in America but fearing that the British-born aesthetic movement might not translate here, the promoter decided to send Wilde to the United States to deliver a series of lectures — then a popular form of entertainment — on subjects related to aestheticism, such as the nature of beauty, while wearing the same sort of outfits as Bunthorne.

Wilde saw a chance to build on his fame, and sailed off to America.

The promoters had sent letters of introduction to prominent members of high society and the press, fudging the truth to intimate that Wilde was a founder of the aesthetic movement and was far more notable in England than he really was.

It worked — perhaps a little too well.

For while “Patience” is still staged occasionally, the object of its derision remains far better known, and even revered, long after his death.

Wilde’s “fifteen minutes of fame” have lasted over one hundred years.

The reason, of course, is that while Oscar Wilde started out as the human equivalent of “a band name in search of a band,” he went on to pen such classics as The Importance of Being Earnest (which has been called the funniest play in the English language), “The Selfish Giant,” “The Picture of Dorian Grey” and — from his prison cell — “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (“For each man kills the thing he loves…”)

Look at it this way:

Imagine if Angelyne had eventually directed a couple of Oscar-winning movies…

Few such “bootstrapping,” seat-of-one’s-pants quests for fame end as well as Wilde’s.

Or, arguably, as badly. (See, “prison,” above.)

Like the tales of Wilde’s unlikely American adventure, meditations upon the nature of fame and celebrity possess a seemingly inexhaustible power to fascinate.

By combining both topics, Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Making of Modern Celebrity promises to be an enlightening, entertaining read.

My copy is in the mail.