Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North AmericaBooks
By Roy Morris jnr
Belknap Press, $39.95
OSCAR Wilde's proclamation to the customs man in New York - ''I have nothing to declare but my genius'' - is one of those famous lines no one seems to have actually heard. According to Roy Morris jnr, it began to do the rounds later, and Wilde was happy to let it stand. But, as Morris says, it was ''the perfect opening line for a play written, produced, directed and starring Oscar Wilde as a highly stylised version of himself'''.
Wilde spent a year on the lecture circuit in the US, presenting the new movement of aestheticism. His reception varied. In some places, he was listened to with respect; in others, he was good-naturedly sent up; and in others still, he was treated with a boorishness that embarrassed and angered the more polite among his audience.
Those 19th-century trolls, journalists, also gave him hell, from The Salt Lake Herald to The Atlantic Monthly. Wilde was tough and genial about all this. He did have inept moments, such as when he gave a signed photograph of himself to the former president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, by then a grim recluse. Henry James hated him but Walt Whitman got on well with him.
Morris can be a little excitable at times and isn't afraid of digression, so each person Wilde meets comes with a CV attached and the hotels he visits have their amenities detailed. If you wanted to be uncharitable, you could call this padding, or at least a fear of wasting research. But it does add up to a panorama of life on the road in the Gilded Age.