Wilde Up Close and Far Away

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OSCAR WILDE:  A Life
by Matthew Sturgis
Knopf. 864 pages, $40.

 

THE INVENTION OF OSCAR WILDE
by Nicholas Frankel
Reaktion Books. 272 pages, $25.

 

 

FOR A 19TH-CENTURY author, Oscar Wilde is astonishingly present in today’s culture—far more mentioned and quoted than even a perennial favorite like Mark Twain. This, I believe, is due to a combination of factors. Wilde was an important artist who had a dramatic life, and his personal drama and his writing are intertwined in ways that seem to illuminate each other. Indeed, while Wilde famously said (or was quoted as saying) that he put his genius into his life and only his talent into his work, I would argue that the two together can be seen as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, with many thematic connections between Wilde’s self-creation and his artistic creations. Add to this Wilde’s ambiguousness on many points—his nationality (Irish or English), his religion (Catholic, Protestant, or “Pagan”), his politics (socialist or not), his sexuality, and so on, and the result is a many-faceted and elusive subject. Consequently, there is never a year without new books about Wilde, each generally emphasizing (or over-emphasizing) the importance of one of his many aspects.

            Last year was no exception. Two books came out that attempted to encompass the whole of Wilde’s story: Matthew Sturgis’ Oscar Wilde (which appeared three years earlier in the UK) and Nicholas Frankel’s The Invention of Oscar Wilde. Both Sturgis and Frankel are distinguished writers, Sturgis as a biographer of fin-de-siècle artistic figures (in particular Aubrey Beardsley) and Frankel as a Wilde scholar.

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Andrew Lear is the founder of Oscar Wilde Tours and We Were There, a nonprofit organization focused on LGBT history.

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