- Making Oscar Wilde by Michèle Mendelssohn
by Michèle Mendelssohn; pp. 360.
Oxford UP, 2018. $33.05 cloth.
Michèle mendelssohn has written a useful, clear, and engaging biography of Oscar Wilde. Making Oscar Wilde adds productively to other Wilde biographies because of its emphasis on Wilde’s early life and in particular on how those early experiences contributed to Wilde the public figure and Wilde the aesthete author he would later become. [End Page 150]
As do other biographers, Mendelssohn begins with Wilde’s early years (1854–81) but emphasizes how his very early experiences would influence Wilde’s later career. She then moves to Wilde’s lecture tour of America and spends roughly two-thirds of the book on this single year (1882) of Wilde’s life. Mendelssohn spends the final part of her book on the last seventeen years of Wilde’s life, often pointing back to Wilde’s experience in America to show the origins of Wilde’s mature literary production. Despite this seemingly unbalanced coverage, Mendelssohn generally justifies such emphasis on a single year of Wilde’s life, as she shows how Wilde’s various experiences during his lecture tour were crucial in his development as an author and personality. Furthermore, Mendelssohn is particularly thorough in her research and has the advantages of Internet archives and resources that only in the past decade or so have been widely available to biographers. She makes good use of these sources in carefully documenting the evidence in support of her various conclusions. While reading, I felt fully convinced of her conclusions, especially her major argument concerning the crucial role Wilde’s lecture tour had on his later literary works.
I do, however, have several minor reservations. First, although Mendelssohn effectively supports her conclusions, I sometimes wondered about the direct relevance of some of the chapters in part 2 (the chapters covering Wilde’s lecture tour in America). These chapters are well written and interesting, but a few seem rather tangentially relevant to Mendelssohn’s main argument. I wonder whether the chapter on Jefferson Davis, the chapter on the lynching in Louisiana, and even the chapter on Wilde’s views on Irish politics, for example, really further Mendelssohn’s main argument concerning the role the lecture tour had on Wilde’s later literary career and celebrity status. Second, part 3 of Making Oscar Wilde moves almost directly from Wilde’s return to the United Kingdom in January 1883 to the latter part of the decade with very little discussion of the intervening years. Finally, Mendelssohn’s biography takes the reader (relatively quickly) through Wilde’s mature literary period as well as his trial and death a few years later. Again, all of this is well written and of interest, but, since this biography is about the making of Oscar Wilde, a discussion of Wilde in his mature state would seem to go beyond the scope of Mendelssohn’s main argument. The author does at times point back to Wilde’s earlier experiences and their role in making Wilde’s mature period, but I still felt that much of this section of the book was a little tangential to Mendelssohn’s main purpose in writing this biography.
In the end, though, these are minor quibbles with a very fine work of biography that will be of value to scholars for many years to come. [End Page 151]