“Making Oscar Wilde” by Michele Mendelssohn— The Untold Story

Mendelssohn, Michele. “Making Oscar Wilde”, Oxford University Press, 2018.

The Untold Story

Amos Lassen

Today we regard Oscar Wilde is one of the greats of English literature. His plays and stories are beloved around the world but we are all well aware tat it was not always so. He has received in death what he so desired in life and was denied him— legitimacy. “Making Oscar Wilde” is the untold story of young Wilde’s career in Victorian England and post-Civil War America. It is set on two continents and follows a larger-than-life hero on an unforgettable adventure to make his name as a serious writer.

Writer Michele Mendelssohn combines new evidence and cultural history to dramatize Wilde’s rise, fall, and resurrection. She brings to life the charming young Irishman who wanted to captivate the United States and Britain and ultimately conquered the world. Mendelssohn shows sensation-hungry Victorian journalism and popular entertainment alongside racial controversies, sex scandals, and the growth of Irish nationalism. This is revisionist history that shows how Wilde’s early life embodies the story of the Victorian era as it sluggishly moved towards modernity.

There is a lot to think about here. This biography is as complex and political as it is fascinating and devastating. It is also the study of the construction of celebrity and reputation. Through looking at Wilde’s trip to the United States in 1882, Mendelssohn shows how stereotypes of the Irish immigrant and the minstrel show influenced us and how the strategies of Wilde and his tour manager, made him a controversial star. We see how Wilde’s being Irish played into the story of race relations in post-Civil War America.

Mendelssohn in effect rewrites history by giving us a Wilde caught in a complex web of social and racial prejudices. We see how Wilde invented himself, and was invented, as an international artist-celebrity. His world was of his making even though he could not choose the conditions. Wilde believed that the best way to intensify a personality is to multiply it.” We will never see Wilde the same way again.

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