I first read Oscar Wilde in 1954 at age 10. This was in an exceptionally cheap and poorly printed edition of his collected works published by Walter J. Black & Co. My parents, knowing I was an insatiable reader (the first full-length book I recall having read was David Copperfield when I was eight) dutifully subscribed at my request to Black’s series of classics, which included the works of practically everybody of note in English literature, including those bête noirs of highbrow snobs Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, and Rudyard Kipling.
Throughout most of the 1950s we lived in a government camp in Palisades, Idaho where my father, a civil engineer, worked on constructing what became Palisades Dam. The nearest public library was more than fifty miles away in Idaho Falls and, although we used the library regularly, we also subscribed to books and magazines that were delivered once a month to our post office box—the Landmark books on American history and biography for me, the complete works of Zane Grey for my dad, and the Book of the Month Club monthly selection for my mom. Of course, I also read Zane Grey and the Book of the Month Club selections but (aside from the monthly Donald Duck comics) nothing gave me as much pleasure as Black’s classics.
How I looked forward to the monthly arrival of the latest volume which I would immediately unwrap before stealing away to a secluded place to devour in one gargantuan gulp. And, although I adored Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, and Mark Twain, I was overwhelmed by Oscar Wilde.
The Black edition contained nearly everything—all the plays, including Salomé, most of the essays—“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” “The Critic as Artist,” “The Decay of Lying,” and “Pen, Pencil, and Poison.” Also The Picture of Dorian Grey and a wide selection of Wilde’s poetry, including “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which I promptly memorized and declaimed to whoever had the patience to listen.
I did not understand most of what Wilde wrote, but I knew I had found an author who could construct a perfect English sentence at will and was endlessly witty and always subversive. Like Stephen Fry, who wrote a marvelous essay on reading Wilde as a young gay boy for The New Yorker (and, of course, played him to perfection in the movie Wilde) Wilde’s epigrams and witticisms thoroughly undermined the conformist culture of the age (although the ‘Fifties were not nearly so conformist as many believe) and provided me with my first experience of intellectual and emotional liberation.
Unlike Stephen Fry, I’m not gay, but like Fry, I literally worshipped Oscar Wilde. Naturally, I wanted to learn all about him, but the only biography available in the Idaho Falls public library was the thoroughly entertaining Oscar Wilde, His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, which passed rapidly over the trials and was singularly unhelpful about what crime Wilde was charged with. I assumed he had run afoul of a government-appointed literary censor. Since I knew little about heterosexuality (and what I thought I knew was almost entirely erroneous) homosexuality was well beyond my ken. I could not find “somdomite” (Queensberry’s misspelling) in the dictionary and even after I got my parents to buy The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, superbly edited by H. Montgomery Hyde, I remained confused by the testimony regarding stained bedsheets and gifts of cigarette cases to lower-class boys. I understood only that Wilde was accused of corrupting youths and, since by that time I knew that Socrates had been similarly charged, I came to view Wilde as a martyr to free speech and thought.
After I finally figured out (with the aid of more explicit biographies) what the sordid details brought up in the trials meant, my opinion of Wilde did not change. And, after having taught European history and literature for more than 30 years, Wilde has remained (along with Tolstoy) my favorite author. I have always been angered by critics who have denigrated him as superficial and second-rate. Fortunately, the definitive answer to all such ill-considered criticism is the brilliant biography of Wilde by Richard Ellman, which makes the unanswerable case that Wilde’s plays are more intricately structured than previously recognized and that beneath the surface cleverness lies considerable profundity.
I have also long been struck by the fact that, as fascinating as Wilde was in print, he was evidently even more so in person. Almost everyone who knew him, including George Bernard Shaw, considered Wilde the most brilliant talker they had ever met. And this was in age of remarkably witty and engaging talkers including James McNeill Whistler, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Henry Labouchere, and Shaw himself.
When asked what person from history I would most like to have known, I find it a tossup among Jesus of Nazareth, Abraham Lincoln and Oscar Wilde (closely followed by Churchill, Jane Austen, Disraeli, Sheridan and Byron). I have no doubt that each would be hugely interesting and even entertaining but I am absolutely certain that Wilde would make me laugh more than all the others combined.