The Living World of Oscar Wilde
Dr. Robert B. Sargent, Associate Professor of English, Hofstra University
April 5 - May 14, 2000
David Filderman Gallery, Ninth floor, Joan and Donald E. Axinn Library
"Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly." -- Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1899)
Today, at the centenary of his death, Oscar Wilde remains very much alive - as the intense interest in his life and work by a diverse group of contemporary film makers the American Todd Haynes, the British Oliver Parker and the Chilean Raoul Ruiz, suggest . The reason for his currency is best expressed by Wilde himself when he was asked by Walt Whitman at Whitman's home in Camden, New Jersey in 1882 to distinguish his stance as an artist and man from that of Tennyson the Poet Laureate of England. He told Whitman that Tennyson "has not allowed himself to be a part of the living action. [but] We [Whitman and Wilde - Wilde implies], on the other hand, move in the very heart of today" (Mikhail 48). It is this attitude to art and life - neither self-consciously modern nor defiantly traditional - which makes Wilde seem so relevant and appealing as we face a new millennium.
n keeping with these times, this exhibition originated in a web site, Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces, constructed by the graduate students in the Victorian Studies Group at New York University, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the trials of Oscar Wilde. I was sent by my colleague Robert Keane, the director of the Hofstra Cultural Center Conference on Wilde, to see Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library/Special Collections, at the Bobst Library at New York University to arrange for the show to travel to Hofstra for the Wilde Conference. On learning that the "show" now only exists in cyberspace, I began to construct an exhibition which could be viewed in real time and space and that would give some tangible sense of Wilde's life and work by selecting an original photograph, letters and first editions of Wilde's works from the excellent holdings of the Fales Collection with additional material from Hofstra University's Joan and Donald E. Axinn Library, especially the Weingrow Collection. As a graduate of New York University's Victorian Studies program and a long-time faculty member at Hofstra - originally the suburban campus of New York University - this joint venture has been very satisfying for me. I thank Marvin Taylor for his kindness and cooperative spirit and Mary Wakeford, Karen Albert and Dean David Christman of the Hofstra Museum for their able assistance.
The exhibition has been organized around Wilde's life and career and has been divided into three stages, with a fourth section to suggest his evolving heritage. That the year-long travels in America in 1882 to some 50 cities - he called the country "an extensive lunatic asylum" (Mikhail 80) - may seem inevitably provincial for a conference sponsored by an American University. But, I believe, Wilde's experience in the United States was as crucial in his development as novelist Charles Dickens' visit was 40 years earlier. As we look at the carte de visite photography of Wilde in the exhibition, taken in Union Square, New York, we might remember a contemporary reporter's description of Wilde's grand entrance into Jersey City:
As a Pennsylvania ferryboat swung into her slip at Jersey City at a few minutes before one o'clock yesterday afternoon, the crowd scattered about the dock exclaimed in subdued tones: "There he is; see him, that's Oscar Wilde." The tall figure of the apostle of aestheticism, clad in his olive-green overcoat with its otter trimmings, and his large face brightened by a smile and framed in long brown locks, blown about by the wind, was a conspicuous figure as he stood in the very front of the crowd of passengers pressing against the gunwales of the boat.
He had evidently been enjoying a breezy trip across the tawny Hudson, for his eye sparkled and his face was flushed with pleasure as, with a long stride which kept him far in advance even of the eager rush with which a New York crowd escapes from the ferry, and which left his valet struggling hopelessly in the rear with a burden of baggage, he entered the Pennsylvania station and passed to the waiting Philadelphia express. (Mikhail 42)
If the highlight of the second stage of Wilde's career is the creation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, his great but only novel in 1890, his decision to marry Constance Lloyd in 1884 and to begin a whirlwind relationship with Alfred Douglas in 1891 express directly the complex inner forces of a man whose life could only be hinted at in "Dorian Gray" and the play Salome (1894).
It is not possible to convey in an exhibition how brilliant Wilde must have been as a conversationalist and how much of himself he invested in his friends and acquaintances. He was a great man and he constructed a great life. Poet W. B. Yeats called him "the greatest talker of his time" (Mikhail 149), yet, according to author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he "had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we had to say. He took as well as gave" (Mikhail 161).
Wilde's final tragic stage defies easy description or interpretation. In 1895 Wilde charged Lord Queensberry, Alfred Douglas' father, with publishing a libel against him, that he was posing as a homosexual, and he lost. In a second trial - this time of Wilde for "committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons" (Ellmann 477) - ended with a hung jury. Out on bail, Wilde refused to flee prosecution as some of his friends urged. In the third trial a jury convicted Wilde on all counts and he was sentenced to hard labor for two years. He was released in 1897 and lived his last few years of life as an exile in France. He died on November 30, 1900 - with very little money and few mourners. Wilde's contemporary and friend Walter Crane, the English painter who was asked by Wilde to do illustrations for his first book of stories The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888), expresses a usefully succinct view of this tragic conclusion to Wilde's life in his Reminiscences of 1907:
If he ever fooled people he was also befooled. He squandered the most brilliant talents on trifles, but showed even in his brilliant trifling gleams of real power and imagination. He would have been happy in pagan times, but could not adjust himself to modern British suburban ideals or morals. He fought the Philistines with delicate weapons, and at last, defying them, and overstepping ordinary bounds in the pursuit of pleasure he committed the fatal crime of being found out, was instantly dropped by Society, and so fell, and was crushed by the heavy foot of the Law (Mikhail 151).
In 1891, Wilde declared: "The truth about the life of a man is not what he does, but the legend which he creates around himself. Legends should never be destroyed. It is they which help us catch a glimpse of the genuine face of a man" (171). After 100 years, Wilde's legend remains strong and his heritage secure. We celebrate in this conference his protean gifts and accomplishments and look forward with great anticipation to the new insights and interpretations of Wilde's life and work the scholars who are participating in this conference will contribute to his living record.
Robert B. Sargent
Associate Professor of English, Hofstra University