A walk on Wilde's several sides

May 08, 1994|By Robert Taylor | Robert Taylor,Boston Globe

"The Stranger Wilde" has a double meaning. Gary Schmidgall wants his title to convey the notion that Oscar Wilde, a stranger to us as the past recedes, is also stranger than we think, "more dubious, perplexing and inconvenient." The title also has an overtone Mr. Schmidgall never intended, "the man Wilde," the distancing phrase of contempt used by police reports and those who condemned him, and that echo illustrates the vagrant eclecticism that undermines an otherwise astute study.

The jacket claims Mr. Schmidgall's "is the first book to assert frankly that Wilde's sexual orientation is the key to his literary accomplishments and his enduring appeal." The "frankly" is arguable, but this is nonsense. H. Montgomery Hyde has chronicled the sexual context of Wilde's life, and Richard Ellman's biography -- though it strikes Mr. Schmidgall as "a product of the older, more genteel and discreet biographical dispensation" -- does not tiptoe around the subject.

Wilde's enduring appeal lies in his wit and what Borges called "the irresistible and constant pleasure of his company." There is a disguised subtext to "The Importance of Being Earnest," but you don't have to decipher it in order to appreciate perhaps the finest farce in the English language. When Shaw, at 92, was asked what famous man of the past he would most like to meet, he replied, "If I craved for entertaining conversation by a first-class raconteur I should choose Oscar Wilde."

To evaluate Wilde (1854-1900) in terms of contemporary gay culture, however, rather neglects the era in which he lived. He was a Victorian with ingrained Victorian values, and his duality reflects not only his sexual identity but the duality of his society. Looking backward, Mr. Schmidgall interprets Wilde not as a Victorian but as a precursor of politically correct contemporary attitudes. That he edited the taste-making magazine, Woman's World, in the late 1880s -- and did so ably -- does not make him an honorary feminist, for example. He urged his female contributors to employ "a light touch, a delicate hand" consonant with their sex.

Mr. Schmidgall might have written a life and times very profitably, since he has examined primary sources in the Clark Library, affiliated with UCLA, the most extensive collection of Wilde materials in the world. Instead he fell under the spell of the Wilde persona -- referred to as "Oscar" throughout -- and decided to show the multiple and contradictory aspects of Wilde's character by devoting each chapter to a different facet of the man.

That decision to abandon chronology was fatal: Oscar as husband, arbiter elegantarium, tragedian and grown-up infant receives attention, but just as the reader gets interested in a particular role, the chapter stops and one is catapulted to a different period. The genuinely original portions of the book are not necessarily those which deal with speculation about Wilde's character, but with such offbeat matters as his editorial treatment in the pages of Punch, a lucid legal history of Section 11 and Wilde's crime, and a delectable commentary on the interactions of Wilde and Shaw.

In his "Memories of Oscar Wilde," Shaw said he doubted that they met more than a dozen times, and he could only recollect six. "We put each other out frightfully and this odd difficulty persisted between us to the very last."

Nevertheless, there was a kind of symmetry between them. "You must always remember," said Shaw, "that we were Irishmen, resenting strongly the English practice of making pets of Irishmen. We understood one another on this point, and thereby made our relationship quite unintelligible in England." Despite the contemporary gay vulgarisms that now and then creep into his prose, Gary Schmidgall is at his best when he shelves his reductive thesis for insight like this.

Title: "The Stranger Wilde: Interpreting Oscar"

Author: By Gary Schmidgall

Publisher: William Abrahams/Dutton

Length, price: 494 pages, $25.95

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