More Wilde Than We Knew

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Secret LifeThe Secret Life of Oscar Wilde
by Neil McKenna
Basic Books.  539 pages, $29.95

 

THIS THOROUGH and harrowing book gives us the information we need to assess Oscar Wilde’s place in the creation of modern Western culture and in the history of gay rights. Previous biographies have tended to portray Wilde as either a genius with an occasional but fatal weakness for boys, or as a heroic martyr of gay liberation. By reviewing all the publicly available material and uncovering important new sources from an era in which every educated person kept diaries and wrote several letters a day, Neil McKenna scrupulously documents Wilde’s sexual life and demonstrates its connection to his art, his ethical evolution, and his tragedy.

McKenna leaves no doubt that Wilde was a gay man from start to finish, documenting hundreds of sexual encounters and affairs with friends, rent-boys, and just about any other youth he could manage to pick up—those in their mid-teens seem to have been his favorite quarry.

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