Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Michèle Mendelssohn's "Making Oscar Wilde"

Michèle Mendelssohn is a literary critic and cultural historian. She is Associate Professor of English Literature at Oxford University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Making Oscar Wilde, and reported the following:
Page 99 lies roughly a third of the way through Making Oscar Wilde, my biography of Wilde’s rise, fall and resurrection as one of the Greats of English Literature.

At this point in the story, it’s early 1882. Wilde is twenty-seven years old. Nothing he has written has been successful.

He is only a few weeks into a yearlong lecture tour of the United States and Canada. He’s promoting the musical hit of the moment, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, a satirical romp about a poseur who is “anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare”. He’s also delivering an abstruse art lecture that makes him sound like the butt of G and S’s show.

Overnight, he has gone from being a virtual nobody to an international somebody. A few months earlier, when he signed up for this gig, he was merely an unemployed man about town who had gained local notoriety for his eccentric views on art. But as soon as his ship docks in New York City, he is gussied up by an American showman called Col. Morse and posed by the nineteenth century’s preeminent celebrity photographer, Napoleon Sarony. Wilde is thrilled with his makeover. He tells his friend the actress Lillie Langtry that Sarony has made him “beautiful.”

Combined with the promotional efforts of his American manager, Wilde becomes a novelty item. Without his consent, his image is used to advertise products including cigars, ice cream and something called Madame Fontaine’s Bust Beautifier.

Everything seems to be going wonderfully, until suddenly it isn’t.

On page 99, Wilde begins to suspect that the American manager who is making him famous also has the power to unmake him. Col. Morse is running his tour and ruining his reputation with underhanded tricks and racist bids for publicity.

Wilde has struck a deal with the devil.

“Aren’t you sorry for Oscar?,” Lillie Langtry gasps in a letter to a mutual friend, the painter James McNeill Whistler.

Here we watch Wilde discover that showbusiness is a bankrupt system. Worse still, he’s locked into it. The celebrity machine is going to grind him down and spit him out if he doesn’t fight back.

Meantime, the wave of publicity is growing uncontrollably. Soon it will become a tsunami of hostility and racism that will threaten to destroy him. That is all to come in the next 165 pages.

For now, on page 99, Wilde is still just a clever young man from Ireland on his way to an adventure.
Learn more about Making Oscar Wilde at the Oxford University Press website, and visit Michèle Mendelssohn's Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue