The untold story of Wilde's career through the lens of his 1882 America tour, during which the nation's racist attitudes—specifically of the anti-Black variety—led critics to deride Wilde in minstrel shows and cartoons, linking Wilde's Irish heritage with that of Africans. Racist himself, a humiliated Wilde drew upon minstrel tropes to compose what are now some of his most celebrated comedies.
Minstrelsy? Really? What could be further from Wilde’s highbrow high jinks than that racist, degrading American and English entertainment for the masses? It’s a hard contrast to process, but Mendelssohn’s detailed examination—geared more to the devout Wildephile than to the casual fan—is compelling ... Mendelssohn’s scrupulous account humanizes Wilde, often unflatteringly. He was an unrepentant racist who alternately dismissed or fetishized blacks, bragged about his white-supremacist uncle and toadied up to Jefferson Davis and other Confederate stalwarts, drawing parallels between Southern secessionism and Irish republicanism ... Wilde the wit, the aesthete and the social commentator, partly fashioned in the furnace of an unruly America, continues to be relevant.
Many of the attacks on him...took a highly specific and more pernicious form, and it is Michèle Mendelssohn’s account of these that constitute the backbone of her revelatory narrative—a retelling of Wilde’s American adventure that genuinely makes you rethink vital elements of his life and work ... Nineteenth-century America might well have been a land of immigrants, but it had a [racist] social hierarchy all the same—one that clumped Irishmen (like Wilde) and blacks together right at the bottom ... Harper’s Weekly published an image of a monkey dressed as Wilde; in New York, a woman announced to his face that she was glad to have seen a gorilla at last ... Mendelssohn very skilfully reveals the impact these attacks had on him: not only the misery they caused but also, in the longer term, their effect on both his public persona and his work ... Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance is, she believes, a near relative of the blackface dandies who parodied Wilde while he was on tour ... Mendelssohn’s research is prodigious; she has tapped sources previously unavailable to other scholars ... It may be that we can only see him as a victim of the attitudes of his age, when, at key moments, he was also in cahoots with them, an accomplice after all.
Mendelssohn’s vivid account of Wilde’s creation of Wilde amounts to a primer on methods of publicity and promotion, methods to be sure firmly rooted in the Age of Barnum (and indeed, P. T. Barnum actually attended one of Wilde’s lectures in order to gauge his potential) ... As an account of the genesis of Wilde’s persona, then, the fact that Mendelssohn devotes two-thirds of her book to one crucial year in Wilde’s life makes perfect sense. But the fact that she largely ignores half that year does not. We learn about the beginning of January through the fourth of July in glorious detail but learn next to nothing about Wilde’s subsequent six months in America ... A fuller exploration of what went into the creation of our icon, as opposed to the Victorians’, would be a valuable addition—or would make for a valuable sequel—to Making Oscar Wilde. Quibbles, these. Making Oscar Wilde succeeds commendably at what it sets out to do: offering a vivid, intelligent look at Victorian celebrity culture through the rise to fame of one of its brightest stars. And that’s something you won’t find elsewhere—not even in Ellmann.