July 30, 2018
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Michele Mendelssohn's book Making Oscar Wilde offers an insightful look at Oscar Wilde through the lens of post-Civil War America.
Eileen Myles wrote of the book:
"One of the most devastating, complex and presently political literary biographies I've ever read."
My book tells the story of a local Irish eccentric called Oscar who became an international celebrity called Wilde. Today, he’s one of English literature's most famous authors. But it was not always so. His afterlife has given him the legitimacy that life itself denied him. In Making Oscar Wilde, I wanted to take readers behind the scenes to reveal the secret story of his self-creation in Victorian England and post-Civil War America. The biography reveals the spectacular anti-Irish prejudice he faced in both countries.
1. “I'm Coming Out” by Diana Ross
At the beginning of Making Oscar Wilde, I write about a weird discovery I made at the Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles: a grotesque blackface caricature of Wilde that looked like nothing I had seen before. That picture became my obsession for the better part of a decade. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what it was about. What I learned much later was that it was the key to Wilde’s untold story.
“There's a new me coming out,” Diana Ross declares in this song. That line speaks to the new picture of Oscar that I paint in this biography. Uncovering Wilde’s secret struggles felt like finding his personal picture of Dorian Gray – a portrait of an alter ego that had been hidden away for more than a century. My job was to let that picture speak its secret truth, to tell the remarkable story of Wilde’s youthful adventures in America.
2. “Take Your Mama” by Scissor Sisters
Oscar was born in 1854. His first stroke of luck was to have extraordinary parents. His father, Sir William Wilde, was Surgeon Oculist to Queen Victoria. Despite his demanding schedule, he also found time to father three illegitimate children before he married Oscar’s mother, the poet Jane Elgee. She was unconventional, bold and intellectual: a good match. She was born in Dublin to a respected Protestant Irish family but pretended she was descended from Dante. She preferred to be called “Speranza.”
From an early age she encouraged Oscar to sit at the dinner table and partake in the adults’ conversations. She also fostered “adult” tastes in her son. When Oscar was eleven years old, they read Walt Whitman’s poetry together – even though Leaves of Grass was then considered too racy for ladies, let alone for children.
“Come home with me,” Wilde told a friend, “I want to introduce you to my mother. We have founded a society for the suppression of virtue.”
The more I got to know Speranza, the more I grew to love her eccentricities. She’s the ultimate stage mom, living vicariously through her Oscar and eager for him to succeed.
This song captures the unusual relationship she shared with her son. I can imagine Oscar and Speranza rocking out to the line “Take your mama out all night/ You can stay up late 'cause baby you're a full grown man.”
This song is a bluffer’s guide to making people think you’re smarter than you actually are. It’s also an homage to the young Oscar: in his twenties, Wilde gained a reputation as a dandy who spouted incomprehensible art twaddle. In this song, his alter ego, the aesthetic poet Bunthorne, reveals that the secret to appearing sophisticated is to become fluent in nonsense:
If you’re anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and plant them everywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind,
The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
And every one will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
“If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!”
4. “Hello America” by Def Leppard
By the age of 27, Wilde was still basically unemployed. On one occasion, he offered his services as a personal shopper with excellent taste in neckties. For all his hustling, he was hardly making a living, let alone making his name. It became a running gag among his friends and associates.
Meanwhile, he was gaining a street cred in London as an advocate of Aestheticism – an artistic movement concerned with poetry and beauty. From this, Wilde’s reputation slowly began to grow.
Then came his break – he was offered an American lecture tour promoting Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, Patience in the US. Who better to promote the satire than a man who was so very laughable for his beliefs about poetry and beauty?
The invitation could not have come at a better time. And so on Christmas Eve 1881, he boarded the SS Arizona and sailed towards the adventure of a lifetime.
The adrenalin-pumped guitar in Def Leppard’s "Hello America" captures the excitement of Wilde’s transcontinental adventure. The lyrics do, too. Wilde made love to America. Initially, Americans loved him back. It was there, during a gruelling year-long lecture tour, that Wilde really began to make his name.
5. “Fame” by David Bowie
American showmen gave Wilde the makeover of a lifetime. Dressed up in tight clothes and stylized by the era’s greatest celebrity photographer, he looked as though he had been on a 19th century version of a transformation TV show, something that could have been called Straight Eye for the Queer Guy. Overnight, he became sexappealing and semi-famous.
Bowie’s song encapsulates the compromises that celebrity demands. “Fame makes a man take things over,” Bowie sings. But fame can also take over and distort a man– and that was what was happening to Oscar.
American women loved him and flocked to his lectures. I unearthed a ton of Oscar-related pop culture and sheet music, and some of it riffs on the love affair his female fans had with him. None of these novelty songs have been recorded, so I was thankful that Martin Stokes, an ethnomusicologist who now heads the Music Faculty at King’s College London, agreed to play some for me on the piano. Although these tunes have terrific names like “Oscar Wilde Sunflower Polka”, “Oscar Wilde’s Serenade” and “Wilde Oscar Wilde”, most of them are pretty unspectacular. Still, I have a soft spot for “Oscar Dear!”, a rowdy tune with a jaunty tempo that took the rumours about Wilde’s flirtations and turned them into a hit about a ladykiller called Oscar, his wandering hands, and the girl who loved him despite them.
6. “I’m as happy as a big sunflower”
Wilde entered a culture in which blackface minstrelsy dominated the stage. Blackface culture rubbed off on Wilde in all sorts of curious and disturbing ways.
Between 1850 until the early 1880s, minstrelsy was the premier entertainment on both sides of the Atlantic. The mix of theatre, dance, and music became the go-to entertainment for everyone from working class men to well-to-do ladies and children.
Why did Wilde get swept up with this? Well, that’s one of the stories that my book tells. One reason is that Wilde adopted the sunflower as his personal symbol. Yet long before his time, sunflowers had already become synonymous with blackface minstrelsy.
“The Big Sunflower” was a time-honoured blackface song. W. Sheppard of the Original Christy Minstrels made it famous and others sang it for decades afterwards, right up into the early decades of the twentieth century. Performers usually wore a ring of wide, yellow petals around their blackened faces to create the sunflower effect. In the 1930 film Big Boy, Al Jolson wore the disguise.
7. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday
Before the summer of 1882 had even started, Wilde had delivered 80 lectures in 74 different locations across the United States. Now his train was speeding South. It was early June 1882 when he crossed the Mason-Dixon line, once the symbolic division between southern slaveholding states and northern non-slaveholding states.
The South greeted Wilde with clear skies and sweltering temperatures. He would take the stage in New Orleans, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, making at least 23 individual stops before the end of July. His African-American valet at his side, Wilde soldiered through the humid summer in a velvet jacket and silk-stockings. When they reached the coast, he found relief by bathing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Southerners imagined the aesthete as an ambassador of two interest groups: the Irish and the working man. The press began a new spate of degrading attacks that amplified the perception of Wilde as a negrified Paddy.
Soon a more tragic theme was emerging in the coverage of Wilde’s Southern tour. Oscar Wilde “was made a guest at a lynching entertainment,” newspapers across the country claimed. “A crowd of obliging white men… wanted the distinguished English aesthete to see one of their chief amusements.”
“Southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” Billie Holliday sang in the 1930s. About half a century before, systematic records on lynchings were non-existent. In 1882, the year Wilde came to the United States, the Chicago Tribune and the Tuskegee Institute began collecting data about such murders. They soon produced evidence quantifying a gruesome trend that continued into the 1930s, when Holliday first recorded her haunting song. This period has become known as the Age of Lynching.
As Oscar travelled among the picturesque bayous and magnolia trees, a peculiar thing happened: the lyncher’s noose began to hover closer and closer to him, threatening him more than ever before.
8. “When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going” by Billy Ocean
Late nineteenth century show-business demanded constant innovation to keep audiences coming back. It was the Age of Barnum and bluster. Wilde was a poor lecturer and he had formidable opponents – American showmen, blackface imitators, cross-dressing stars and hostile journalists.
In interviews, Wilde projected unshakable self-belief despite the private worries he shared with his tour manager. “I know that I am right, that I have a mission to perform. I am indestructible!” he told the American press. No matter how much he was struggling, he was determined not to let the public see it.
Privately, he was falling to pieces. His health was declining. One night, he collapsed on stage from sheer exhaustion. On another, his lecture brought in just $18.75. That night, he bought himself some medicine and went to drown his sorrows at the bar. He had hit rock bottom. If I had been there, I would have played him this song to cheer him up. I’d like to imagine him bopping along to it.
9. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by The Jackson Five
In St Paul, Minnesota, on St Patrick’s Day 1882, those who leaned in and looked closely noticed that Wilde was wearing a single, white kid glove – like some precocious anticipation of Michael Jackson’s famous single, white glove in the 1980s. In Wilde’s day, however, white gloves were characteristically worn by blackface performers. And in the United States, those performers were usually Irishmen in glad rags and blackface playing servile, slave-like roles on stage. For all its restraint, the glove was a show of dissent, a meaningful detail that made all the difference. His finery announced the many Irish identities he wore in America, where he was simultaneously treated as a king and a court jester.
Now, in his St Patrick’s Day speech, he took back the stage, presenting himself as a solemn defender of Ireland. He was going to make Speranza proud. Wilde’s speech extolled Ireland’s faded glories. He left no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was the real thing: a proud Irishman.
10. “Hall of Fame” by The Script feat. will.i.am
It took me about 10 years to research and write this book. I rewrote it so many times that I lost track of how many drafts I went through. At some point, I started a playlist to get myself through early mornings of writing (before teaching) and late nights (after teaching).
I put The Script’s “Hall of Fame” on it because it reminded me of Oscar’s story and how he earned his place in English Literature’s Hall of Fame. As a young man he had had neither aristocratic assurances, nor genius’s gleaming guarantees; even conventional professional prospects had eluded him. Eccentricity was no promise of success. Yet now he sits comfortably alongside Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen.
11. “Daedalus” by Errollyn Wallen (performed by by Errollyn Wallen with the Brodsky Quartet)
Wilde has become gay history’s Christ figure. In this hauntingly beautiful song, Errollyn Wallen asks “Is this the life you would have hoped for?” If Saint Oscar were alive today, I’m certain he would say yes.
I first heard this song twenty years ago when Errollyn Wallen played it in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. I still find it extremely moving.
Writing is an emotional experience, even if little of that feeling makes it onto the page. At one point, when I was wrestling with Wilde’s relationship to his 2 sons, I dreamt that his wife had hired me to be their nanny. Another time, when I was wrestling with a difficult chapter, I cycled out to the grave of one of Wilde’s biographers, Richard Ellmann, sat nearby and wept.
When you spend ten years writing a book, at some point your stamina gives out. That’s when someone baking you homemade oatcakes or telling you a good joke or driving you to the beach for the day can feel like a monumental act of kindness.
There were times when I felt overwhelmed by the unrelenting cruelty of the anti-black and anti-Irish prejudice I uncovered. I kept seeing parallels between the Victorian age and today’s anti-immigrant stories and racist narratives.
The most troubling thing to me was how much Wilde suffered and how vulnerable he was – even before he was put on trial for gross indecency in 1895. The same genius and free spirit that made Oscar special also made him vulnerable. His whiteness, his manhood and his class did not protect him. In the end, his story goes to show how vulnerable we all are, in one way or another.
12. “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor
The title of Gloria Gaynor’s 1970s hit tells you exactly what this song is about: finding the will to live no matter what life throws at you. This anthem’s thumping disco tells you how to do it, too: by dancing through your tears.
“At first I was afraid, I was petrified,” Gaynor confesses, but by the end of the song she’s proud, resilient, defiant even. She has done a complete 180. “Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die?” she spits back. “Oh no, not I.”
Something similar has happened to Wilde’s reputation. Once upon a time Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was an undergraduate, refused to house his archive. Now the college proudly lists him among its most famous alumni. Wilde’s student digs have been transformed into a space where willowy college kids sometimes practice yoga. The walls have been redecorated in period-appropriate aesthetic sage green. A discreet gay pride homage has been installed, too: at the flick of a switch, the bench seating lights up neon gay pride pink.
From the wall, a twenty-eight year old Oscar watches the current Magdalen College students from an enormous Sarony portrait. He’s surrounded by a heavy gilt frame and lit with spotlights. His starpower is brighter than ever. He looks like he is having the time of his life. He will survive.
Michele Mendelssohn and Making Oscar Wilde links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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