WILDE IN AMERICA
OSCAR WILDE and the INVENTION of MODERN CELEBRITY
ARRIVING OCTOBER 2014 · FROM W.W. NORTON
On January 3, 1882, Oscar Wilde, a 27-year-old “genius”—at least by his own reckoning—arrived in New York. The Dublin-born Oxford man had made such a spectacle of himself in London with his eccentric fashion sense, his acerbic wit, and his extravagant passion for art and home design that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote an operetta lampooning him. He was hired to go to America to promote that musical by presenting lectures on interior decorating. But Wilde had his own business plan. He would go to promote himself.
And he did, traveling some 15,000 miles and visiting 150 American cities as he created a template for fame creation that still works today. Though he was only the author of a self-published book of poems and an unproduced play, he presented himself as a “star,” taking the stage in satin breeches and a velvet coat with lace trim as he sang the praises of sconces and embroidered pillows—but, most of all, himself. What Wilde so presciently understood is that fame could launch a career, as well as cap one.
David M. Friedman’s lively and often hilarious narrative whisks us across nineteenth-century America, from the mansions of Gilded Age Manhattan to roller-skating rinks in Indiana, from an opium den in San Francisco to the bottom of the Matchless silver mine in Colorado—then the richest on Earth—where Wilde dined with twelve gobsmacked miners, later describing their shared feast to his friends in London as, “First course: whiskey. Second course: whiskey. Third course: whiskey.”
But Wilde was no mere clown; he was a strategist. From his antics in London to his manipulation of the media—Wilde gave 100 interviews in America, more than anyone else in the world in 1882—he designed every move to increase his renown. There had been famous people before him, but Wilde was the first to become famous for being famous. Wilde in America is an enchanting tale of travel and transformation, comedy and capitalism—an unforgettable story that teaches us about our present, as well as our past.
ADVANCE PRAISE & REVIEWS
“Friedman vividly chronicles the early part of Wilde’s career—a little known but crucial period … and shows how Wilde created Wilde.”
“Following Wilde through his American travels, Friedman focuses each chapter on one of Wilde’s revelations about how to become a celebrity: ‘Take Your Show on the Road,’ ‘Build Your Brand,’ ‘Work the Room,’ ‘Strike a Pose,’ ‘Celebrity is Contagious,’ ‘The Subject is Always You,’ ‘Promote is Just Another World for Provoke,’ ‘Keep Yourself Amused,’ and ‘Go Where You’re Wanted (And Even Where You’re Not)’—i.e., bad publicity is still publicity…. Several amusing anecdotes stand out, such as Wilde’s first meeting with Walt Whitman, himself a ‘self-taught genius at self-promotion’…. Friedman fashions a lively narrative.”
“No one knows for sure whether Oscar Wilde really told a New York customs officer that he had ‘he had nothing to declare but his genius.’ But David M. Friedman’s new and spirited account of Wilde’s 1882 tour of the United States does some marvelous declaring of its own. Part homage to the high priest of 19th-century aestheticism and part how-to guide for celebrity wanna-bes, Wilde in America is riveting reading from cover to cover. Friedman’s account brims with lush descriptions and often glitters with a lightness of touch and acerbic wit that Wilde himself might have admired.”
—John Matteson, Pulitzer Prizewinning author of Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller
“David M. Friedman’s Wilde in America is hugely fun to read—lively, smart, and well-written. With insightful observations and deftly chosen anecdotes, details, and quotes, Friedman shows us a new side of an author we thought we knew well. Long before he started writing the plays and books for which he’d become famous, Oscar Wilde was working single-mindedly toward an unusual goal: he wanted to be famous for being famous. In the ultimate fish-out-of-water story, Friedman shows us the culmination of this effort: the breeches-wearing aesthete’s lecture tour of the United States in 1882, a yearlong self-marketing campaign that blazed a path aspiring celebrities are following today—whether they realize it or not.”
–Ben Yagoda, author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made
“Oscar Wilde and Gorgeous George never met, of course, but, if they had, I’m sure they would have enjoyed each other immensely. Both understood the importance of image in marketing, and, equally relevant, both grasped the possibilities opened up by gender-bending in the creation of that image. What makes David M. Friedman’s book so fascinating is the way he chronicles how hard—and amusingly—Wilde worked to pioneer those connections while touring America in 1882, long before he became Oscar Wilde the famous writer. His goal then was to become Oscar Wilde the famous person, and he succeeded. It’s a joy to read how he did it.”
–John Capouya, author of Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture