Oscar Wilde

By: Joshua Glenn
October 16, 2014


In 1881, OSCAR WILDE (1854–1900) was paid to roam the United States as a kind of advertisement for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, a satire of London’s “Aestheticist” movement — of which the 26-year-old Anglo-Irish philosopher and poet was a leading figure. The tour, during which he famously told a US Customs official “I have nothing to declare… except my genius,” made Wilde a global superstar, and emboldened him to denounce American-style vulgar materialism, and the bourgeois work-idea, in ever fiercer and funnier aphorisms. Throughout the Eighties (1884–93, according to my periodization), in essays like “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist,” in the horror novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in the plays Salomé, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband, all of which rejected earnestness in favor of a serious ironicism, Wilde claimed that artifice is more beautiful (and more real) than the so-called “natural,” that art must be created without moral concerns, and that modern civilization crushes the imagination and one’s self-realization. Once his writings began to emphasize the serious aspects of his aestheticist philosophy (his 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Capitalism,” for example, argues for socialism; his brilliant 1894 play The Importance of Being Earnest satirizes the earnestness with which Victorian England idealized marriage), and once he became less circumspect about his bisexuality, Wilde’s adoring fans turned on him. Accused in 1895 of “posing as a sodomite,” by his lover’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, Wilde sued for libel, lost, and was sentenced to hard labor in Reading Gaol. Broken on the wheel, the butterfly languished and died at age 46: alone, impoverished, and in exile.

A longer version of this item appeared in Hermenaut #11/12 (Winter 1997).


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Louis Althusser, Ray Johnson.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New Promethean (1844–53) and Plutonian (1854-63) Generations.