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Wilde in America

Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity

David M. Friedman (Author)


The story of Oscar Wilde’s landmark 1882 American tour explains how this quotable literary eminence became famous for being famous.

On January 3, 1882, Oscar Wilde, a twenty-seven-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, acerbic wit, and 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 work 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 Wilde 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—and 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 feast to his friends in London as “First course: whiskey. Second course: whiskey. Third course: whiskey.”

But, as Friedman shows, 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.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • October 2014
  • ISBN 978-0-393-06317-2
  • 6.4 × 9.6 in / 320 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

“Friedman argues that Wilde was among the very first to realize that celebrity could come before accomplishment.” — Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review

“Friedman vividly chronicles the early parts of Wilde’s career—a little-known but crucial period.” — Publishers Weekly

“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 that 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, each 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 intelligently—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. 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

“No one knows for sure whether Oscar Wilde really told a New York customs officer that 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 nineteenth-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 Prize–winning author of Eden’s Outcasts and The Lives of Margaret Fuller

“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.” — Kirkus Reviews

“Smart, entertaining.” — Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe

“Friedman is savvy and strong-minded; he enjoys and for the most part admires Wilde’s genius for publicity. Friedman always keeps the amazing soon-to-be dazzling author in the forefront, even as a thesis about celebrity drives the narrative forward… [A] swift, fascinating chronicle.” — Bob Blaisdell, Christian Science Monitor

“Friedman argues his case unassailably, using well-chosen examples of Wilde’s genius for self-promotion… As Friedman draws connections between Wilde’s tour and our world of celebrity worship, what might have been merely an amusing series of nineteenth-century anecdotes takes on a compelling relevance for the modern-day reader… An extremely engaging, well-researched book.” — Jennie Rathbun, Lambda Literary

“[F]ascinating… Not many biographers will have sifted through the archives of the St Louis Post Dispatch for February 1882, for example, yet Friedman yields interesting facts and figures about the itinerary.” — Times (UK), Book of the Week

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