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Soup Plates With Moonlight Scenes

Asma Rasheed

By Roy Morris Jr.
Belknap Press, London, 2013, pp. 248, $26.95


Roy Morris Jr.’s book chronicles Oscar Wilde’s eleven-month long tour of the United States and Canada in 1882. It is during this tour, we are told, that Oscar Wilde became Oscar Wilde. Wilde apocrypha has it that he announced to the customs agents, on his arrival in New York, that he had nothing to declare except his genius. It is a bit difficult to review a book that chronicles, somewhat unsteadily, the 15,000 miles Wilde travelled over 260 days to deliver 140 lectures, besides meeting everyone who was anyone, in a recurring list of labels. Let me attempt this by following in Morris’s tracks.   Morris notes that Richard Ellmann’s 1987 biography of Oscar Wilde remains the most comprehensive, cradle-to-grave biography that touches on almost all the high points but, nonetheless, ‘skimps a good deal on the broader social and historical context’ (p. 4). Morris attempts to side-step this professorial briskness, he says, and offers an account that is in ‘just proportion’, much as Wilde’s beloved Greeks understood. He begins with newspaper reports as well as interviews that Wilde routinely gave, and incorporates anecdotes as well as local legends of Wilde’s visits. Morris also charts the visuals which announced and accompanied Wilde’s tour, from the advertisements that drew on the publicity surrounding Wilde to the cartoons, theater-posters, billboards, etc.   The book describes Oscar Wilde as a student—at Trinity College, Dublin and at Magdalen College, Oxford—who affected airy indifference to formal education. Nonetheless, he managed, despite the ‘beauty parties’ with tiptoeing servants in felt slippers, a rare double ‘first’ in classics and modern literature. A ‘true performance artist’, Morris tell us, Oscar Wilde set out to be famous, if not notorious after he left the College. So, for instance, when embarking on his trip to USA, Wilde ordered a bottle-green overcoat trimmed in otter fur with a round sealskin hat and patent-leather dancing slippers with bows on top. On his arrival, fashion photographer Napoleon Sarony took shots of him in a variety of costumes: from the bottle-green overcoat to a purple velvet suit, from knee breeches and black silk stockings over the patent-leather to formal evening wear, a padded smoking jacket, to a flowing black cape and broad-brimmed hat. Each of these poses were printed and sold thousands of copies.   Morris also gives us a list of the celebrities Wilde met, from poets to society matrons to governors to ...

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