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Oscar Wilde ed. by Jarlath Killeen (review)
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The critical rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde began with the publication of Richard Ellmann’s 1987 biography and was continued principally by British and American literary and cultural historians during the next two decades. One criticism of this body of work was that by stressing Wilde’s move away from Dublin, the absence of explicit references to Ireland in his work, his love of Oxford, and so forth, it recuperated Wilde as a British writer. As a consequence a counter-criticism of the Irish Wilde was established, whose aim was the recovery of Wilde for a specifically Irish tradition, as exemplified by Davis Coakley’s Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish (1994). More recently this project has been taken up by a new generation of Irish academics. Jarlath Killeen’s earlier monographs on Wilde represent attempts to locate Wilde’s oeuvre within the contexts of Catholicism and Irish politics. His new edited collection, Oscar Wilde, is the most recent in the Irish Writers in Their Time series and follows collections on James Joyce and W. B. Yeats. According to Stan Smith, the general editor, the aim of this “innovative series” is to meet an “urgent need for comprehensive new accounts of Irish writing . . . which combine readability with critical authority and information with insight.” Each volume claims to address the “whole range of a writer’s work . . . setting its vision of the world in biographical context and situating it within the cultural, intellectual, and political currency of the age, in Ireland and the wider world” (ii). Given the enormous amount of research produced on Wilde over the past two decades, including significant work devoted to exploring his Irish identity, how urgent is this need, and do the essays in this volume fulfil this ambitious remit?

For a writer as diverse as Wilde, doing justice to the “whole range” of his work in eight chapters is a tall order. Killeen’s collection begins with a brief account of the state of current criticism and what he calls the “Wilde wars” (2); he then discusses Wilde’s use of aphorisms, a strategy which he understands not as a postmodern insistence on the “subjectivity” of truth but rather as an assertion that “truth will always be a paradox of that which is received wisdom” (18). Noreen Doody’s essay offers a brief biography which tells us little that is not available from other sources. The resulting narrative takes a familiar direction, albeit with some misleading emphases, such as the assertion that Wilde “only wrote one piece for a public audience in the years after leaving jail, The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (43). After prison, Wilde published two plays, An Ideal Husband (1899) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1899), in versions significantly different from those which were performed in 1895. (For example, the elaborate stage-directions in An Ideal Husband are entirely the product of a post-lapsarian Wilde.) It was this clichéd narrative of Wilde, as a tragic figure broken by prison, which Ellmann popularized and which critics since have questioned. It is surprising to find it rehearsed uncritically in a collection which claims to be innovative. The next essay, by Florina Tufescu, suggests three possible strategies to correct the critical neglect of Wilde’s poetry: biographical criticism, aesthetic criticsm (emphasizing the self-consciousness of the poems), and exploration of Wilde’s influence on later poetry. Unfortunately her essay is too short to provide more than a sketch of what these strategies could offer. Moreover Tufescu criticizes what can be described as a traditional academic approach concerned with sources and textual evidence. She suggests instead the need for “independent” judgment but without explaining what exactly constitutes independence except that it should involve a “creativity” and “boldness” which she sees missing in academic criticism (66). Her chapter is followed by Anne Markey’s piece, which rehearses some of the ideas about Wilde’s short fiction which Markey develops in her recent monograph Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales (2011). Markey gives a useful chronology of Wilde’s short fiction, demonstrating the value of that textual evidence about which Tufescu is so suspicious.

The next essays are by established scholars. Michael Patrick Gillespie discusses The...

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