Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity

David M Friedman (Author)


On January 3, 1882, Oscar Wilde, a twenty-seven-year-old "genius"--at least by his own reckoning--arrived in New York. The Dublin-born Oxford man had made such a spectacle of himself in London with his eccentric fashion sense, acerbic wit, and extravagant passion for art and home design that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote an operetta lampooning him. He was hired to go to America to promote that work by presenting lectures on interior decorating. But Wilde had his own business plan. He would go to promote himself.

And he did, traveling some 15,000 miles and visiting 150 American cities as he created a template for fame creation that still works today. Though Wilde was only the author of a self-published book of poems and an unproduced play, he presented himself as a "star," taking the stage in satin breeches and a velvet coat with lace trim as he sang the praises of sconces and embroidered pillows--and himself. What Wilde so presciently understood is that fame could launch a career as well as cap one.

David M. Friedman's lively and often hilarious narrative whisks us across nineteenth-century America, from the mansions of Gilded Age Manhattan to roller-skating rinks in Indiana, from an opium den in San Francisco to the bottom of the Matchless silver mine in Colorado--then the richest on earth--where Wilde dined with twelve gobsmacked miners, later describing their feast to his friends in London as "First course: whiskey. Second course: whiskey. Third course: whiskey."

But, as Friedman shows, Wilde was no mere clown; he was a strategist. From his antics in London to his manipulation of the media--Wilde gave 100 interviews in America, more than anyone else in the world in 1882--he designed every move to increase his renown. There had been famous people before him, but Wilde was the first to become famous for being famous. Wilde in America is an enchanting tale of travel and transformation, comedy and capitalism--an unforgettable story that teaches us about our present as well as our past.

Product Details

W. W. Norton & Company
Publish Date
October 06, 2014
6.1 X 1.1 X 9.3 inches | 1.4 pounds
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About the Author

David M. Friedman is the author of Wilde in America, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis and The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Dr. Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever


Friedman argues that Wilde was among the very first to realize that celebrity could come before accomplishment.--Liesl Schillinger
Smart, entertaining.--Kate Tuttle
Friedman vividly chronicles the early parts of Wilde's career--a little-known but crucial period.
Oscar Wilde and Gorgeous George never met, of course, but, if they had, I'm sure they would have enjoyed each other immensely. Both understood the importance of image in marketing, and, equally relevant, each grasped the possibilities opened up by gender-bending in the creation of that image. What makes David M. Friedman's book so fascinating is the way he chronicles how intelligently--and amusingly--Wilde worked to pioneer those connections while touring America in 1882, long before he became Oscar Wilde the famous writer. His goal then was to become Oscar Wilde the famous person. It's a joy to read how he did it.--John Capouya, author of Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture
Following Wilde through his American travels, Friedman focuses each chapter on one of Wilde's revelations about how to become a celebrity: 'Take Your Show on the Road, ' 'Build Your Brand, ' 'Work the Room, ' 'Strike a Pose, ' 'Celebrity is Contagious, ' 'The Subject is Always You, ' 'Promote is Just Another World for Provoke, ' 'Keep Yourself Amused, ' and 'Go Where You're Wanted (And Even Where You're Not)'--i.e., bad publicity is still publicity... Several amusing anecdotes stand out, such as Wilde's first meeting with Walt Whitman, himself a 'self-taught genius at self-promotion'... Friedman fashions a lively narrative.
Friedman is savvy and strong-minded; he enjoys and for the most part admires Wilde's genius for publicity. Friedman always keeps the amazing soon-to-be dazzling author in the forefront, even as a thesis about celebrity drives the narrative forward... [A] swift, fascinating chronicle.--Bob Blaisdell
Friedman argues his case unassailably, using well-chosen examples of Wilde's genius for self-promotion... As Friedman draws connections between Wilde's tour and our world of celebrity worship, what might have been merely an amusing series of nineteenth-century anecdotes takes on a compelling relevance for the modern-day reader... An extremely engaging, well-researched book.--Jennie Rathbun