Have smoking jacket, will travel: Wilde, photographed in New York in January 1882 by Napoleon Sarony. Photo: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
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How Oscar Wilde cracked America

The story of Wilde's coming to America is also the story of modern celebrity.

Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity
David M Friedman
W W Norton, 320pp, £17.99

In the early 1990s, I took a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska – a city in the “flyover” states that, ostensibly, might be said to hold little claim over the collective identity of the United States. A century earlier, Oscar Wilde had called there on his somewhat surreal 1882 tour of North America. I think the place was still recovering from the shock. One academic proudly related to me Wilde’s wonder at the city fathers who had seen fit to name Lincoln’s main thoroughfare “0 Street” – as in zero. The story summed up the contrast between the emptiness of the prairies around us and the orchidaceous cynosure of decadence who had appeared here, as if teleported from some other universe.

But it was the very meeting of those two opposing energies that laid the foundations for a new sort of fame and fed what Wilde would become. As David M Friedman’s Wilde in America demonstrates, the Irish-born, Oxford-educated aesthete – renamed by some of the less admiring members of the US press as an “Ass-thete” – not only derived much delight from enlightening his erstwhile colonial cousins on “The House Beautiful” and the deep appeal of medieval dress (as evidenced in his own furbelows, velvets and breeches), but they rather liked him in turn.

Friedman’s theme is Wilde as the inventor of modern celebrity – or, at least, his complicity in it. The US in the late 19th century was ripe for such exploitation. Its cities were already rivalling their European counterparts in sprawl, and the republic had made its mark on the global economy. America was ready for Wilde; and Wilde was ready for it.

In 1882, Wilde was not yet famous for anything in particular. He was celebrated for the way he looked and what he said as much as for what he had written – which wasn’t a lot. His literary achievements to date were to have won the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford and to have self-published his verse in a deluxe white-and-gold edition. At college he had allied himself to John Ruskin’s aesthetic of truth to beauty, but he took to heart Walter Pater’s hedonistic paean: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” In championing the Aesthetic Movement – as its self-proclaimed leader, with a ready group of acolytes – Wilde was best known for having paraded down Piccadilly in London bearing a single lily. Or was it a sunflower? It hardly mattered: the image was lodged in the public mind.

But new fuel was needed to keep Wilde aflame. It was supplied by the theatrical impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, a Cameron Mackintosh of his day. Carte and his organisation were eager to promote a US tour of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, in which Wilde was satirised as the foppish, velveteen Bunthorne. An American contact in Carte’s New York office (the informant, Friedman reveals intriguingly, would later marry Wilde’s brother, Willie) suggested that it would be an excellent idea if the putative States-wide audience had their eyes opened to the cult of beauty by its greatest proponent.

Clearly, he was being set up for the kind of ridicule that the British press was already lavishing upon him; but Wilde appreciated the publicity value of the proposition. He would use the tour to burnish his burgeoning image and reflect it back to London, imbued with a new American glamour. Like with a modern pop act, “breaking America” was the key to Oscar’s success. The descriptions of his outrageous appearance, clad in satin and fur and accessorised with lavender gloves, silver-topped cane and buttonhole, recall David Bowie’s bisexual assault on the US in the mid-1970s. And the often violent opposition that greeted Wilde’s lectures – from those who felt personally affronted by what he seemed to represent – echoes the complicit uproar that met the Sex Pistols in the later 1970s.

Vital to this process was the visual propagation of Wilde’s image. In a fascinating chapter, Friedman describes one of the most notable photo sessions ever accomplished: Wilde’s visit to Napoleon Sarony’s huge, five-floor studio complex at 37 Union Square in New York. Sarony paid celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt to sit for him, and made his profits from cartes de visite of their image which sold in their tens of thousands. Oscar ought to have paid Sarony for the favour; as Friedman notes, the Wilde we know was born that day. As he draped himself in the costumes he had brought in a suitcase, Oscar assumed the mantle of a global superstar. (Perhaps only New York could accomplish such a transformation; Friedman might have updated his story further. A century later, Andy Warhol installed his fame-making Factory at 33 Union Square. There, a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie – who, long-haired, wearing a “man-dress” and draped on a sofa, had reprised Sarony’s languid portraits of Wilde for the cover of his 1970-71 album, The Man Who Sold the World – would call on Warhol and reinvent himself as a result.)

Thus disseminated and advertised, Wilde’s fame went before him, on an endlessly extended 150-date, 100-interview tour – not to mention appearances in salons, prisons and a memorable call on Walt Whitman during which kisses were exchanged. But the single most remarkable stop was Wilde’s arrival in Leadville, a Colorado outpost entirely predicated on its new silver mines. Here Oscar expounded so evocatively on the Renaissance silversmith Benvenuto Cellini that his audience of miners wanted to know why Wilde hadn’t brought the ­Italian with him.

“I explained that he had been dead for some time, which elicited the enquiry, ‘Who shot him?’”

After a night on the town – during which Oscar matched his hosts drink for drink – he was invited to a midnight supper at the bottom of one of the mines itself, a scene lovingly re-created in the opening of the 1997 biopic Wilde, starring Stephen Fry. But contrary to the image of a frock-coated Oscar descending elegantly into the depths, he was lowered in a bucket, clad in a rubber coat, and although he claimed to have shown perfect composure during his hundred-foot descent, observers said that the fearless dandy was visibly scared. Nevertheless, once below, Wilde resumed drinking and lit a huge cigar, which had the miners cheering “until the silver fell in dust . . . on our plates”.

That silver dust would be passed on, from then to now. The dynamic of glamour that began in Sarony’s studio ended in secular saintdom, and Wilde’s image came to represent far more than the sum of its parts. He became part of a non-genealogical transmission, a kind of fairy godmother. In the title sequence of Todd Haynes’s 1998 glam-rock fantasy, Velvet Goldmine, Wilde ­arrives as an alien baby on a Dublin doorstep in 1854 and is reincarnated in the persona of the Bowie-ish protagonist, “Brian Slade”. Like Bowie and Warhol, Wilde embodied an era. “I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age,” he wrote. And: “I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me.”

Although Friedman does not speculate on the queerness of Wilde’s image on that 1882 tour, or what impact it might have had on gay men from New England to Nebraska, the author’s research is impeccable. He reconstructs the lecture dates, from sell-out crowds in New York and Boston to Midwestern halls where as few as 30 souls turned up. In Harvard, a platoon of prank-minded students appeared, wearing long wigs, floppy hats and breeches – only for Wilde (who had been tipped off about the stunt) to appear soberly clad in a dinner jacket, declaring, “I am impelled for the first time in my life to breathe a fervent prayer: ‘Save me from my disciples.’”

Theatre within theatre, performance on performance, Wilde was the ultimate drama queen. His last public appearance, in the witness box at the Old Bailey, would prove to be the terrible satiation of his thirst for fame. As Friedman observes, Oscar fatally mistook his celebrity for invulnerability. He died in 1900, aged just 46, having announced, “If I were to outlive the century, it would be more than the English could stand.” So potent was the poison spread around him that even in the 1930s, when my mother was a teenager, she was made aware that Wilde was a bad man, but had no idea why.

The vividness of Friedman’s account makes me wonder what effect an undisgraced Wilde might have had. Would his influence – he was, after all, one of the most successful playwrights of his time – have led to an early sexual liberation? What power might he have held over the new century, had he survived? The war that defined the opening of the 20th century was welcomed by some as a purging of the decadence that had sapped British manhood. How different would our world have been if Saint Oscar had been with us for another 40 years?

Even leaving aside dreams of a Wildean queertopia, perhaps it is time to make amends. If Alan Turing is deserving of a posthumous pardon, why not Wilde? To one we owe the computer; to the other, our ability to look up from the gutter to the stars.

Philip Hoare’s “Wilde’s Last Stand” is published by Duckworth. He will give a Proms Extra talk on “1895 and Oscar Wilde” at the Royal College of Music, London SW7, on 3 August (from 7.45pm), to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on the same day

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.