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  • Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and “Fin-de-Siècle Talk”: A Brief Reading
  • Shelley Salamensky

Henry James’s first conversations with Oscar Wilde, the premier talker of his time, were less than successful. Reports from a Boston party lionized Wilde’s “amusing” talk while lampooning James’s as “boring” (Ellmann 178). Their ensuing one-on-one encounter, according to Richard Ellmann, was worse:

James remarked, “I am very nostalgic for London.” Wilde could not resist putting him down. “Really?” he said. . . . “You care for places? The world is my home.”. . . By the end of the interview James was raging. . . .

[James] informed Mrs. [Henry] Adams that she was right. “‘Hosscar’ Wilde is a fatuous fool, tenth-rate cad,’ ‘an unclean beast.’”. . . Mrs. Adams knew what he meant, and spoke of Wilde’s sex as “undecided.” Some eight years later James would relent and even join in sponsoring Wilde . . . for the Savile Club, but he always insisted he was not one of Wilde’s friends. . . . For his part, Wilde had no idea of the hostility he had aroused in James.” (178–79)

Wilde out-talked James socially, where his skills were hailed as superior, and also privately, where James’s simple offering—a statement of homage to Wilde’s city—was deferred, deflected, and topped by Wilde’s flamboyant rejoinder. James seems to have then taken recourse in name-calling, asserting his own moral health and sameness to the upright Mrs. Adams over Wildean decadence and difference—qualities of which James could hardly have been unaware before looking Wilde up at his hotel. Later, Wilde would best James in yet another arena of talk: staged dialogue. James, of course, died bitterly frustrated over his plays’ failure to please—particularly in comparison to Wilde’s, whose staged talk (literally on the same nights and, finally, in the same venue as James’s) met resounding acclaim [End Page 275] while James’s drew hisses and boos. Jockeying for space freed by James’s flop, Wilde plugged his trademark dialogue as “fin-de-siècle talk,” situating his own pen on the pulsebeat of late-century theater audiences—in implicit contrast to James’s failure (Wilde 308–09). Wilde never explained why his brand of talk—which was in fact patently unique—should so fit the period bill. This performative, aphoristic chatter, of course, did not later serve Wilde as well on the stand. Yet in some sense Wilde was correct.

James, clearly having long weighed their conversational competition, reprises his painful first encounter with Wilde in The Tragic Muse: 1

“[O]ur paths in life are so different,” [the Wilde-figure Gabriel Nash tells the protagonist Nick Dormer].

“Different, yes, but not so different as that. Don’t we both live in London, after all, and in the nineteenth century?”

“Ah my dear Dormer, excuse me: I don’t live in the nineteenth century. Jamais de la vie!” the gentleman declared.

“Not in London either?”

“Yes—when I’m not at Samarcand!”


Compared to James’s venomous rendering of Wilde himself, his portrait of Nash is a mild one. Wilde’s decadent difference, as the novel develops, appears more a curiosity or salutary provocation than purely a threat to sound society. Nash receives friendlier treatment from James than Wilde himself does; nonetheless, Nash and his talk are inextricably linked to notions of decadence and difference. As in the hotel encounter between Wilde and James, Nash trumps Nick by asserting his difference over Nick’s offer to bond through similarity, as well as by simply out-talking him. Also as in the Wilde-James hotel encounter, Nash escapes into immateriality through spatial and temporal deferral—he cannot be pinned down to one locale or, in the fictionalized account, even one century. Immateriality is mirrored by the slipperiness, or slippage, of his discourse, which resists sober, conventional forms to deflect, defer, and derange conventional meaning. Nash’s allusions to living in a century apart from his own and at once in London and at Samarcand cannot be interpreted within Dormer’s monosignificatory discursive system. Nash’s anti-Aristotelian merging of impossible opposites lends him a distinct indeterminacy recalling Mrs. Adams’s vaguely-sexualized characterization of...