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Declaring his Genius

Oscar Wilde in North America
Roy Morris Jr
Belknak Harvard


Indians, miners, train conductors, hotel clerks, and random passersby, would add immeasurably to the legend that Wilde was inventing for himself, almost as he went along. It is safe to say that after his 15,000-mile tour of North America, neither Wilde nor his host countries would ever be quite the same….

Long before Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe, David Bowie, Madonna, or Lady Gaga, Os­car Wilde stamped himself on the collective consciousness of his age— and all before he wrote his first masterpiece. Indeed, it would be another eight years before he published his only novel, the brilliantly transgressive Picture of Dorian Gray, and even longer before he produced the se­ries of devastatingly witty plays that culminated in his most enduring artistic achievement, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895….

Wilde's 1882 tour of North America was a complex media event, perhaps the most extensive of its time. Through the artful use of public­ity, chiefly through interviews with local newspapers, Wilde functioned in essence as his own advance man, beating the drum for his upcoming lectures while carefully nurturing a more elevated image as the leading spokesman for the Aesthetic Movement, which he airily described as "the science of the beautiful." Behind him came a small but dedicated support staff of managers, handlers, publicity men—even a personal va­let. In turn, these assistants were helped, not always intentionally, by the local artists, merchants, advertisers, and entrepreneurs of various stripes who hoped to capitalize on the outrageous visitor. To an extent that both surprised and gratified Wilde, he found that his fame, or at least his notoriety, preceded him to even the smallest, most remote hamlets and mining camps.