Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Declaring his Genius

I just finished reading Roy Morris Jr.'s new book on Oscar Wilde's North American tour, Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America.

It's almost eighty years since the last book about the tour was published and, as Morris points out in his preface, reading Lewis and Smith's Oscar Wilde Discovers America is a little like being "cornered by a garrulous old uncle at a wedding reception": there are some good stories, but to reach them you're compelled to wade through a mire of waffle. And, as with the chatter of a loquacious relative, it's often difficult to tell the true stories from the tall tales. In other words, Lewis and Smith don't let facts get in the way of a good story (although the title of Morris's book, Declaring His Genius, also plays fast and loose with the truth, since the evidence that Wilde declared anything at US customs - let alone his genius - is practically non-existent).

At half the length of the older book, Declaring His Genius is a faster, more focused, read. Making use of resources unavailable to earlier writers, including Hofer and Scharnhorst's 2010 collection of Wilde's American interviews, Morris conjures up the mind of Wilde in a way that would not have been possible just a few years ago.

The media coverage of Wilde's year-long tour was understandably more intense in January than it was in December, by which time most Americans had lost interest in their guest from across the pond. It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that the first third of Morris's book deals solely with Wilde's first month in America. In fact, Declaring His Genius is even more front-heavy than Lewis and Smith's earlier book, with Wilde's last 60 days in America flashing by in only ten pages. So we do not witness the blaze that destroyed the Park Theater the night before Wilde's good friend, Lillie Langtry, was to make her debut upon the American stage, nor do we find out why Wilde abstained from voting at a New York beauty pageant. And the treatment of perhaps the most dramatic event of Wilde's year in America, when he was conned out of thousands of dollars by means of a convoluted lottery scam, is dealt with in under a page (although Morris's suggestion that the police sergeant to whom Wilde reported the crime may well have been its mastermind is an interesting theory, and news to me).

I spent the spring and summer of 2012 writing the script for our pair of comics about Oscar Wilde's American adventure, so I didn't have access to Morris's book when it would have proven most useful. But that's probably for the best. If I'd been able to find everything I needed to know in one 250-page book, perhaps I wouldn't have got so excited about retelling the story. And you definitely can't beat digging through the original sources, many of which are available for free online. Take a look yourself - and if you find anything amazing, tell us about it!

Here's Matthew Sweet's review of the book, well worth a read.

Discover more about Oscar Wilde's American lecture tour, and our comic about it, at oscarwildecomics.com

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