ABOUT THIS BOOK
Arriving at the port of New York in 1882, a 27-year-old Oscar Wilde quipped he had “nothing to declare but my genius.” But as Roy Morris, Jr., reveals in this sparkling narrative, Wilde was, for the first time in his life, underselling himself. A chronicle of the sensation that was Wilde’s eleven-month speaking tour of America, Declaring His Genius offers an indelible portrait of both Oscar Wilde and the Gilded Age.
Wilde covered 15,000 miles, delivered 140 lectures, and met everyone who was anyone. Dressed in satin knee britches and black silk stockings, the long-haired apostle of the British Aesthetic Movement alternately shocked, entertained, and enlightened a spellbound nation. Harvard students attending one of his lectures sported Wildean costume, clutching sunflowers and affecting world-weary poses. Denver prostitutes enticed customers by crying: “We know what makes a cat wild, but what makes Oscar Wilde?” Whitman hoisted a glass to his health, while Ambrose Bierce denounced him as a fraud.
Wilde helped alter the way post–Civil War Americans—still reeling from the most destructive conflict in their history—understood themselves. In an era that saw rapid technological changes, social upheaval, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, he delivered a powerful anti-materialistic message about art and the need for beauty. Yet Wilde too was changed by his tour. Having conquered America, a savvier, more mature writer was ready to take on the rest of the world. Neither Wilde nor America would ever be the same.
Oscar Wilde's year-long lecture-tour of America was a major cultural event—a Victorian precursor to the British Invasion of the 1960s. Wilde came like an apostle, preaching the gospel of Art, and he left an indelible mark on America, just as America did on the mind of Wilde himself. Morris's is a much-needed and highly enjoyable account, distinguished by wit and insight as much as by his singular command of rarely-told facts.
-- Nicholas Frankel, editor of The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition
Morris chronicles a year in the life of Irish dandy and belletrist Wilde, who, at age 27, was bent on invading America the way Dickens had a generation before… Wilde was a self-promoting genius, Morris writes, 'created, cultivated and commodified,' like celebrities today. He hadn't yet written his famous works or openly embraced gayness, but in his elaborate, precious outfits, sporting sunflowers and lilies, dropping affected bons mots for journalists to scoop up as he instructed American audiences with authority on 'The Beautiful' and 'The Artistic Character of the English Renaissance,' Wilde was challenging traditional notions of masculinity and also creating his celebrity… A fondly erudite look at a young, likable celebrity in the making.
-- Kirkus Reviews
[A] delightful account of the tour.
-- Anthony Paletta Daily Beast
When he arrived in New York in January 1882, Oscar Wilde is supposed to have told customs officials: 'I have nothing to declare except my genius.' Roy Morris's contention is that the then 27-year-old Wilde's American tour marked the beginning of the modern cult of celebrity. Wilde, Morris writes, made quite an impression on his American hosts, 'who were naturally predisposed to appreciate rugged individualism in even its most exotic forms.'
-- New Statesman
Declaring His Genius...is as entertaining a tour through Gilded Age America as Wilde's own journey must have been.
-- Adam Kirsch Barnes and Noble Review
[A] terrifically engaging biographical study...Though a rigorous historian, Morris is at heart a storyteller, and Declaring His Genius is so packed with 19th-century curiosities that it at time reads like an oral history by a contemporary of Twain's, if not by Twain himself. The book is full of digressions, creating a colorful tableau of American characters and their stories.
-- Martin Riker Wall Street Journal
A panorama of life on the road in the Gilded Age.
-- Owen Richardson Sydney Morning Herald
If we think of Wilde in America, it is of a preening show-off announcing at customs that 'I have nothing to declare but my genius'; and going on to epigrammatize his way across the continent. The valuable point made by Morris is that beneath the performance--and it was one, with Wilde conscientiously playing the mocker's role the public paid to see, and the public collecting its due of pleasurable annoyance--there was something deeper. Elaborate mask aside, Wilde possessed an eye that was both avid and innocent; and if there was much in America and Americans to criticize, there was much that surprised, instructed, and pleased him.
-- Richard Eder Boston Globe
[A] delightful romp.
-- Fred Setterberg San Francisco Chronicle
Morris tells the story with verve. It is difficult not to be amused by Wilde's encounter with the ebullient Leadville miners or the dour Jefferson Davis...It is delightful and in depth. Recommended both for those new to Wilde, and for his well-informed fans.
-- David Azzolina Library Journal
Enlightening and entertaining.
-- Brooke Allen New Criterion
Roy Morris Jr.'s exhaustive narrative chronicles everywhere [Wilde] went [in America], everyone he met and (almost) everything he ate. While this is very much a book for Wilde devotees, it still contains valuable insights into the media event that quickly became a blueprint for aspiring celebrities in all walks of life...Wilde may have been an incurable show-off, but Morris's blow-by-blow account shows that he was also an unusually kind man. He never used his wit to humiliate people, only to entertain them. Many Americans came along expecting to jeer at him and were quickly won over by his warm and robust personality...[The book] deserves credit for shedding new light on a period which many Wilde biographers have treated as a frivolous curtain-raiser before the main event.
-- Andrew Lynch Business Post
Roy Morris Jr. treats us to a lively account of Wilde's rollicking tour through post-Civil
War America, fleshing out the varied impressions of contemporary newspaper reports with fascinating digressions on the cast of characters Wilde met along the way.
-- Justin Beplate Literary Review
Morris…paints a vivid portrait of Oscar Wilde’s 1882 tour of the U.S. His book is at once a scholarly and thoroughly researched text and an engaging--almost novelistic--narrative that academic researchers and the reading public alike can appreciate. It is replete with fascinating and amusing stories of Wilde’s encounters with Americans from all walks of life and social and economic classes; literature enthusiasts are likely to be particularly interested in tales of his meetings with the likes of Walt Whitman and Henry James. Stories of his ruffling feathers and winning admirers, challenging expectations and changing minds fill these pages of this captivating, must-read book.
-- M. E. DiPaolo Choice