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ELT 45 : 3 2002 New Wilde Anthology Oscar Wilde. The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Selected Critical Prose. Linda Dowling, ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001. ν + 380 pp. Paper £5.99 $12.00 IT IS UNLIKELY that students will come to this latest Wilde anthology in the expectation of finding new or unfamiliar writing. Almost all of the pieces in the volume, including the extended version of "The Portrait of Mr W. H.," Intentions and "The Soul of Man Under Socialism ," have been available in popular anthologies for some time, most accessibly perhaps in Merlin Holland's 1994 Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Likewise, Wilde's well-known letters to the press defending Dorian Gray, which Dowling also prints, routinely turn up in popular editions ofthat novel, as well as in all editions of the Letters. A potential novelty for those who do not have access to Robert Ross's 1908 edition are the eight reviews which begin Dowling's volume; only one of these appears in Holland's larger sample of the journalism. It would appear, then, that the principal selling-point of this new Penguin Classic is the editor herself, in the sense that her anthology seems designed to put forward a particular view of Wilde. Moreover, it is one which is at odds with a number of trends in recent Wilde research—with what Dowling terms in her introduction, the "critic of commodity capitalism," the "professional writer," the "early postmodern exponent of irony, plagiarism and pastiche," and the "theorist of the gay transgressive aesthetic" (there is no mention here of the "Irish" Wilde). The limitation of these "Wildes," for Dowling, is that all of them have been "made over in the image of our contemporary concerns." By contrast , she aims to re-historicize Wilde—to show him to have been absorbed in issues "remote" from us today, issues such as "beauty, aesthetic form [and] the contemplative life." The Wilde of her anthology, which she boldly claims is "in a real sense the essential or fundamental Wilde," appears as a formidable and thoroughly serious intellectual—a genuinely "original thinker" whose preoccupation with "the theory and practice of criticism" is seen to be at least as important and sustaining as his interest in "boy-love." This larger thesis has underwritten Dowling's selection of texts and her annotation. Thus, for example, Wilde's numerous (and arguably more representative) reviews of, say, cookery books, marriage etiquette, travelogues, or popular fiction have been rejected in favour of those which address more elevated topics, such as Whistler, Swinburne, Pater (who is the subject of two pieces in Dowling's selec338 BOOK REVIEWS tion), and Poetical Socialists. The point presumably is to demonstrate an intellectual continuity and seriousness of purpose linking these early pieces with the material in Intentions and "The Soul of Man Under Socialism ." Likewise, the annotation tends to focus on identifying references to what are termed "great literary works"—particularly by Greek and Roman authors. And this too derives from a central claim in the introduction —that Wilde's critical concerns are a direct legacy of his exposure as an undergraduate to the Greats curriculum and Oxford Hellenism. For readers familiar with Dowling's elegantly written monographs on late nineteenth-century intellectual culture, particularly Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (1994) and The Vulgarization of Art (1996), none of this will come as a surprise: her edition follows logically from the arguments of those earlier works. These same readers might also detect similarities with the thesis of Julia Prewitt Brown's Cosmopolitan Criticism (1997). That study, too, attempted to re-present Wilde as a philosopher-critic, tracing a process of intellectual development which began with his undergraduate notebooks. This is not the place to engage with Dowling's larger arguments about Wilde's critical preeminence and the formative influence of Jowett's Oxford. Rather, I would like to address a different issue, one more relevant to the activities of the anthologist and editor: it concerns Dowling's habit of allowing literary or literary-historical judgements to drive editorial practice. The consequences of this strategy are most readily apparent in Dowling's decisions about copy-text—the primary problem for any...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 338-343
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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