Although Wilde's work provides ample evidence that he enjoyed keeping people off balance, his uncertain critical standing may also spring from the degree to which his life eventually overshadowed his work. Too important to ignore and yet too perverse to admire easily, he seems to hover precariously just inside the canon, where any further sign of misbehavior may exclude him forever from survey courses in British literature. But Wilde has been fortunate in his most recent advocates. Within two years of Richard Ellmann's eloquent biography of Wilde, we have two new arguments on his behalf. Both deserve a reading by anyone prepared to admit that ideas of great complexity reverberate beneath the polished surface of Wilde's wit.
Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks is an impressive work of scholarship that will be of lasting value to anyone with a serious interest in Wilde. The heart of the book consists of two previously unpublished journals that Wilde kept as an undergraduate: a 133-page manuscript entitled "Commonplace Book" and an 84-page manuscript called "Notbeook Kept at Oxford Containing Entries Dealing Mostly with Philosophical, Historical, and Literary Subjects," both of which are devoted primarily to recording Wilde's response to his reading during the late 1870s. Smith and Helfand have illuminated these journals with forty-five pages of painstaking notes that carefully distinguish among confirmed, probable, and possible sources for the erudite and often obscure entries they contain. The journals themselves account for only sixty-eight pages of this book. They are prefaced by a lengthy introduction divided into three parts: "The Text," which describes the manuscripts in question and the editorial problems that arose in preparing them for publication; "The Context of the Text," which discusses intellectual influences on Wilde as an undergraduate, and "The Text as Context," which attempts "a radical reinterpretation of Wilde's work" based on the authors' study of the Oxford notebooks.
The astonishing breadth of reading revealed in these journals enables Smith and Helfand to locate Wilde within the rich history of nineteenth-century thought. [End Page 790] Although the influence of Arnold, Ruskin, and Pater has often been remarked upon, Smith and Helfand trace other important influences, such as the philologist F. Max Müller and Hegelians such as William Wallace and Benjamin Jowett. The impact of Hegel upon Wilde is of particular importance, and much of this book's commentary is devoted to demonstrating persuasively how Wilde's work becomes more meaningful, and less paradoxical, when interpreted as Hegelian synthesis of idealist and materialist theories of human development. Smith and Helfand also link Wilde to Herbert Spencer and other Victorian intellectuals interested in race and evolution—including radical Darwinists, like Grant Allen, who believed humans would naturally cooperate for the survival of the species if free from the brutality imposed by economic competition. Locating Wilde within this tradition resolves apparent contradictions within "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," and Smith and Helfand's analysis of this essay is one of their book's many strengths. They are also reliable, and often original, in their reading of the other works they discuss, especially "The Rise of Historical Criticism" and "The Portait of Mr. W. H."
Unfortunately, this book is not all that it could be. Although Smith and Helfand would have given us a valuable work had they simply published the notebooks with their extensive notes, they chose to use the publication of these notebooks as the occasion for saying something important about Wilde. That they have done so is undeniable. There is, however, something a little arbitrary about the selection of works they discuss. The plays for which Wilde is best known are excluded from consideration, and this is understandable for a work subtitled "A Portrait of Mind in the Making." The commentary focuses on Wilde's nonfiction prose, and this is also understandable given the nature of the notebooks and the...