The Wilde letters I read, running through his 1882 American tour, are before The Importance of Being Earnest, before The Picture of Dorian Gray, before his fairy tales, before his critical essays, before almost everything. In 1881 Wilde published his first book, Poems, which is, to be polite, and accurate, very much of its time. He had written his first play, Vera; or, the Nihilists, “a drama on modern Russia” (Letters, p. 96) which, if it had been written by the Wilde of the 1890s would be a great comic masterpiece but was instead written by the Wilde of 1880, a fellow who was still, to be polite, exploring his talents, and is thus dreary twaddle. The play reached the stage in 1883, where it remained for one week.
A number of Wilde’s letters are to actresses and producers, badgering on about this awful play. I assume there will be plenty more of this stuff in the Letters, simultaneously tedious and fascinating, when Wilde is at his peak.
Wilde achieved some celebrity, for his talk, his wit, as an Oxford undergraduate. He was incidentally a first-rate classicist. Early letters are about cramming, and then about celebrating his First in Greats. His wit is only lightly present in his letter to his friends. But of course he is not performing for them the way he would in public. He is “kill[ing] time and pheasants and the ennui of not having set the world quite on fire as yet” (28 November 1879, 84). (Young Wilde avidly hunted and fished).
It is amusing, and also a little dull, to watch Wilde hustle. His obsequious letters to Robert Browning and Matthew Arnold* accompanying dedication copies of Poems mask what was simultaneously happening at London salons. Wilde was becoming famous for his jokes and paradoxes, not his mediocre poems, so famous that the London audience for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881) assumed that the Fleshly Poet protagonist was a parody of Wilde, even though he is obviously Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Gilbert had made an error – the character should have been Wilde, and the audience (and soon enough the director and actor) behaved accordingly. Wilde was 26.
Soon Wilde is working arm in arm with the Patience producer, on his way to America to simultaneously promote the operetta and himself, performing offstage as a British aesthete and dandy, dragging “a hat-box, a secretary, a dressing-case, a trunk, a portmanteau, and a valet” – “I can’t travel without Balzac and Gautier” (6 July 1882, 175) – all over the United States and Canada. Thus the lectures on aesthetics to Colorado silver miners. Thus he finds himself trapped in Topeka, Kansas:
The local poet has just called on me with his masterpiece, a sanguinary lyric of 3000 lines on the Civil War. The most impassioned part begins thus:
‘Here Mayor Simpson battled bravely with his Fifteenth Kansas Cavalry.’
What am I to do? (21 April 1882, 165)
In America the Wilde I knew begins to appear in his letters. The next four hundred pages of letters promise a lot of pleasure.
* And Gladstone! Do British poets still send their first books to the Prime Minister? “[T]o one who has always loved what is noble and beautiful and true in life and art” blah blah blah yuck (20 July 1881, 113).