'Terrorism and Tyranny' by James Bovard

'DNA: The Secret of Life' by James Watson

'Revere Beach Elegy' by Roland Merullo

'Advice to a Young Contrarian' by Christopher Hitchens

'In the Shape of a Boar' by Lawrence Norfolk

'The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde' Edited by Merwin Holland

'Martin Baumann' by David Leavitt

'The Golden Age' by Gore Vidal

'Waineright the Poisoner' by Andrew Motion

'The Book of Revelation' by Rupert Thomson

'Dreams of Dreams' by Antonio Tabucchi

'Consolations of Philosophy' by Alain de Botton

'Apologizing to Dogs' by Joe Coomer

'We Can Report Them' by Michael Brodsky

'The Young John Muir' by Steven J. Holmes

'Soft!' by Rupert Thomson

The Boston Globe, December 10, 2000

Splendidly Wilde

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde
Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis
Henry Holt and Company
1270 pp. $45

Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius
Barbara Belford
Random House
338 pp. $29.95

The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
Joseph Pearce
330 pp. $29.95

o gradual has been Oscar Wilde's return to fame over the last hundred years that only a new Rip van Winkle just waking from a long sleep would be able to register the proper surprise.

Wilde died in infamy on November 30, 1900, a broken man following two years spent in an English prison and three more in impoverished, alcoholic exile in France. People danced in the street when his sentence was passed, and spat on him as he was led from the courtroom. Death has been kinder, thanks in part to the efforts of his grandson, Merlin Holland, playing posterity's publicist. Also helpful has been the progress of gay liberation to the mainstream. But mostly Wilde has himself to thank. As Harold Bloom put it, Wilde was "right about everything," which is always helpful with posterity.

That Wilde remains the same good company now as he was in life is suggested by the many biographers who choose to spend their time with him. His story is almost foolproof, a three-act mousetrap of rise, reign and fall. The anecdotes are lively (Wilde as editor of the "Women's World" magazine once wrote to Queen Victoria asking if she had any poems she would like to submit) and his wit delightful (asked if “The Importance of Being Earnest” was going to be a success, Wilde said, "The play is a success. The only question is whether the opening night's audience will be one"). Best of all, the contradictions of Wilde's personality are big enough that each biographer must resolve them anew, creating a new Wilde each time. "Every great man nowadays has his disciples," Wilde said, "and it is always Judas who writes the biography." But the only Judas writing his biography was Alfred Douglas, his aristocratic lover, who converted to Catholicism in his later life and condemned Wilde as his corrupting Satan. That was the exception. For the most part Wilde's biographers have been so many Peters and Pauls, loyal friends remembering what their friend had said. Even Richard Ellmann, the acclaimed biographer of Joyce and Yeats whose 1987 "Oscar Wilde" was the first to give Wilde his intellectual due, seemed to suggest that Wilde could, occasionally, walk on the Thames.

What is remarkable about Barbara Belford's new biography of Wilde, "A Certain Genius," is her success in the role of Doubting Thomas. Though obviously fond of Wilde, she isn't overly fond, and her withheld applause lends the familiar story an effective tension. She writes with surprising brio and compression -- Wilde's fans will gulp at her briskness in telling the famous anecdotes, as if obeying a commandment above her writing table: "Thy shall never be poignant!" This is excellent advice, as Wilde never pitied himself, and shot down sentiment with a shotgun. As he said to a friend, "Does one have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nel without laughing?"

Belford is at her best with Wilde's gradual rise to fame, particularly in her portrait of Wilde's remarkable parents. William Wilde was a famous eye and ear surgeon, an author whose interests ranged from medicine to Egyptian archaeology to Irish folk tales (he allowed poorer patients to pay their bills with tales of local legends and superstitions). William Wilde was said to have a child in every barn, and indeed he fathered three illegitimate children whom he supported along with Oscar's older brother and younger sister (all the siblings died prematurely and often tragically, Oscar the last to go at age 46). Oscar's mother was Dublin's Camille Paglia by way of Liberace. Journalist, poet, and author, Jane Wilde was famous for her Wednesday afternoon salons and her conversation-stopping costumes. When a friend asked if a new guest was respectable, Lady Wilde snapped, "Never use that word in this house! Only tradesmen are respectable." Twice the family had been involved in sensational trials, first when Jane Wilde had defiantly admitted to writing inflammatory articles inciting Ireland to independence, later when the father was charged with seducing a young woman in his care. The charge was upheld but only a farthing awarded in damages for an affair that had been ongoing for several years.

In 1878, after an impressive college career studying classics at Oxford, Wilde arrived in London with little money and no work, and over the next few years built a reputation as a conversationalist, an apostle of Aestheticism, and a poet-in-waiting to the leading actresses of his day. He was routinely caricatured in newspapers, and by Gilbert and Sullivan in their comic opera "Patience." When the comedy was sent to America, someone had the idea of sending Wilde with it, so Americans would know what the English were laughing at. To everyone's surprise, Wilde was a hit, staying ten months on a lecture tour that took him from Halifax to San Francisco, even down into the silver mines of Colorado where Wilde hoped that the miners, “in their rough, simple way,” would grant him shares. They didn't, but Wilde returned home richer, his bravado replaced by a poised confidence.

Boston had been an early stop on the tour. A snowy evening in January 1882, every seat at the old Music Hall was filled except for the two front rows. Earlier a rumor had spread that Harvard students planned to disrupt the performance and sure enough, as the lecture was to begin, sixty boys dressed in knee breeches, each carrying a sunflower or lily in Wilde's supposed manner, limped down the center aisle. The audience awaited a showdown. Wilde took the stage in conventional tie and tails, having been forewarned, and won the crowd over with his calm and good humor. “I breathe a fervent prayer, 'Save me from disciples!'” he smiled at the students. Newspapers the next day gave him the victory.

Oscar Wilde is a peculiarly unimaginable figure. He somehow makes the Victorian age seem as remote in time as Atlantis, and one is almost surprised to remember that Bernard Shaw and Henry James were his contemporaries. It's worth remembering that Wilde was as unprecedented for the Victorians as he remains for us, and Belford performs the useful service of bringing him very near. Rather than allow his genius to explain him, she settles him securely into the context of friends and family and social circumstances. Her portrait feels fuller and more convincing than others, certainly more textured in its evocation of the Wilde family's position in Dublin society, Wilde's status as an Irishman in London society.

However, when Wilde's achievements come, Belford seems unable to account for them, so she merely records them. Until his early thirties, Wilde was a celebrity who had produced only a single volume of poorly reviewed poetry. Richard Ellmann argued that it was Wilde's homosexuality – Wilde seems to have had his first homosexual relationship when he was 32, by then a married man with two children – that triggered Wilde's genius, that the double life it made necessary gave his life its edge and his art its subject. Homosexuality seems to have acted on Wilde as a form of insider trading. Experiencing the abhorred for himself and discovering it to be harmless – as harmless as a taste for cucumber sandwiches perhaps -- he gained an extraordinary confidence to attack Society and its values. Hypocrisy wasn't his subject. He understood that Society wasn't being hypocritical in its hatred of the homosexual. It was merely defending its interests, as Wilde in turn defended the individual's.

As Wilde's fame was reaching its zenith, Alfred Douglas' war with his father, the Marquis of Queensberry, was escalating to a dangerous level. In June 1894 Queensberry turned up at Wilde's home in the company of a prizefighter, demanding that Wilde stop seeing his son. “I do noit know what the Queensberry rules are," Wilde claims to have said, "but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot at sight." At the premiere of “The Importance of Being Earnest" the following February, Queensberry showed up with a bouquet of rotten vegetables, intending to denounce Wilde to the audience. But Scotland Yard had been warned and kept the Marquis from entering the theatre. But several days later Queensberry left the famous card at Wilde's club (“To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite (sic)"), leading Wilde to his lawsuit, bankruptcy, and prison.

Many critics date the revival of Wilde's posthumous reputation to the 1962 publication of the Collected Letters. His son Vyvyan (the eldest son Cyril had died in World War II at the age of 30) worried whether names should be named, graphic passages omitted. In the end he agreed to publish the letters unexpurgated, and a fuller portrait of Wilde emerged, warm, casually erudite, wickedly funny. Now reissued on the centenary of Wilde's death, with 300 new letters and many fragments restored to full length, the revised Letters intersect with Wilde's revised reputation, each shedding new light on the other.

Many of the letters are five minute errands, frequently for money, always recognition. Wilde sends copies of his books to Ruskin and Pater, letters to editors to battle unjust reviews, he makes an eternity of plans for lunches, dinners and weekends. In a series of brilliantly controlled letters to the St. James Gazette and Scots Observer, he defends "Dorian Gray" against charges of immorality and lays out his theories of art. In two long letters to the Daily Chronicle he describes prison conditions and urges humane reform. What emerges triumphantly from the letters is Wilde's personality. He is said to have heralded so many revolutions that it is worthwhile to note the revolution that he missed, namely Freud's, which has transformed our modern lives into a 12-step program from cradle-to-grave. The Wilde of these comic, beautiful, amazing letters remains himself from first to last, as if to reinforce his own maxim, “Only mediocrities improve." Consider this snippet from his Western swing:

"Circa 20 March 1882, Sioux City, Iowa

Dear Mrs. Lewis… I don't know where I am: somewhere in the middle of coyotes and canyons: one is a ‘ravine' and the other a ‘fox', I don't know which, but I think they change about. I have met miners… I secretly believe they read up Bret Harte privately; they were certainly almost as real as his miners, and quite as pleasant.

The emotional center of the letters is "De Profundis," Wilde's long letter to posterity, written in the last months of his imprisonment when his hard labor had ended and the rule of no pen, no paper, no book had been relaxed enough for a kindly warden to smuggle in a daily newspaper and occasional biscuit. Wilde was also granted the luxury of a daily sheet of writing paper. Like Bill Clinton, he was eager for history to think well of him. Perhaps this is why the letter, almost alone of Wilde's writing, claims the reader's pity. Some critics find it shrill in its attacks on Alfred Douglas. I confess I am always moved by "De Profundis," by its lyricism, its theology, its stories within stories. I read it as Wilde's effort to get his mind working again, to imagine into reality what his post-prison life might be. Wilde famously remarked that he had put his genius into his life, merely his talent into his art. Neither side of the sentence is true. He was a genius only in conversation, from which his art first, then his life took shape. So many instances could be sited that it's a wonder mystic religions haven't sprung up in Wilde's name, and “De Profundis” reads as Wilde's effort to influence this process:

"What lies before me is my past. I have got to make myself look on that with different eyes, to make the world look on it with different eyes, to make God look on it with different eyes. This I cannot do by ignoring it, or slighting it, or praising it, or denying it. It is only to be done by fully accepting it as an inevitable part of the evolution of my life and character: by bowing my head to everything that I have suffered…”

In his 1987 biography, Ellmann scanted Wilde's post-prison life in France, possibly due to his own failing health. But Belford's last act is nearly as good as her first, as she traces Wilde's path from Reading Goal to the Paris pensione where he died three years later. Though she argues that these years weren't the grubby hell they are often made out to be, they were grubby enough, and brief. After the glorious Indian summer of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Wilde never recovered his muse. "The intense energy of creation has been kicked out of me."

But why did Wilde die so soon after his release? Friends say that he came out of prison slimmer and healthier-looking than he had gone in. Though shunned by the greater part of society, he had faced ridicule and attack before. His entire early career had been built on the miracle of turning the public's vitriol into fame's wine. Wilde left no diary, and seems not to have kept one. We know him largely through his conversation and writing, and our sense is that he understood himself in the same way, as an alchemical creation between himself and his audiences. Only when he is playing with his children in the family nursery does he seem to have any private life, and internal satisfactions.

Some writers in recent years, partly to fill this void, have come up with psychological interpretations of Wilde, the most notorious being Melissa Knox's “A Long and Lovely Suicide,” which takes off from Ellmann's mistaken idea that Wilde had died of syphilis. Knox argued that Wilde's syphilis, allegedly contracted in college, led to a life of shame, secrecy and estrangement from his wife.

Now comes Joseph Pearce's “The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde,” which replaces disease with religion. Pearce perhaps tips his hand early on when he describes Wilde as broken-hearted when his first love, Florence Balscombe, ditches him in favor of a stage manager named Bram Stoker (soon to be famous as the author of “Dracula”). Pearce goes on to say that a sonnet Wilde had written to Lillie Langtry shows Wilde to be “totally besotted" with the famous actress's charms, which is rather like saying Andy Warhol's silkscreens of Elizabeth Taylor betray the beating of a post-modern heart. Like Barbara Belford, Pearce pleads the fifth when it comes to revealing what has attracted him to Wilde, but Pearce's divinity school interpretation of the poems, plays and essays suggests that this attraction has a missionary intent. Pearce finds a moralistic beauty in the poems and minor plays that many, even Wildeans, find unreadable, and immorality in the essays which many agree are Wilde's most brilliant work.

Humorously, in the same way that Belford's previous biography of Bram Stoker opens her eyes to the number of times that Stoker's path crosses with Wilde's, so too does Pearce's religious focus make it seem as if a Christian is lurking behind every London lamppost. His book should more properly have been called “The Conversions of Oscar Wilde,” as there are more conversions here than ‘begats' in Genesis. I agree with Pearce that religion is key to understanding Wilde, but not with his view of Wilde as a failed Christian. Pearce brilliantly captures Wilde's struggle with faith, and the cost of that struggle, but seems to have no awareness of what Wilde achieved, as is vividly clear when he interprets Wilde's famous essay, “The Decay of Lying," as an ode to duplicity. "The Decay of Lying” is, of course, the essence of Wilde's philosophy, arguing as it does that the imagination is higher and finer and stronger than nature. Wilde's comment, “A truth is no longer true when more than one person believes it,” is an empty paradox for Pearce, yet it expresses Wilde's genius at its plainest.