cover image Oscar Wilde's America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age

Oscar Wilde's America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age

Mary W. Blanchard. Yale University Press, $60 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-300-07460-4

The Wilde revival--or is it a craze?--continues with Blanchard's study of the Apostle of Aestheticism and his influence on art and culture in America's Gilded Age, that blink in time between the ""bronzed heroism"" of the Civil War and Teddy Roosevelt's imperialist machismo. Like the recent film Wilde, Blanchard, an associate fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, opens with Wilde's triumphant 1892 lecture tour of the U.S., when the writer was at the pinnacle of his success (in 1895 he would be convicted of ""gross indecency""). Her first few chapters constitute a detailed, though familiar, exploration of ""aesthetic style and the masculine self,"" which recalls many of the conclusions and propositions already advanced by such theorists as Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfeld, and historians such as Ann Douglas, George Chauncey and Jackson Lears (all of whom are cited). Fresher material follows in Blanchard's meticulous foray into the decorative arts, using nearly 200 lovely period illustrations of popular art and dress, outlining the role of women as tastemakers. Her discussion of largely unsung ""female visionaries"" (Candace Wheeler, Celia Thaxter, M. Louise McLaughlin and Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer), and of ""the aesthetic parlor,"" ""the female body"" and ""the catholic icon,"" adds new perspective on the period and serves to support her contention that in the U.S., ""aestheticism was the story of the feminine and domestic world."" Wilde's fall, Blanchard argues, was paralleled by an American ""repressive reaction"" largely because of the association between aesthetic style and the feminine. While the ""counterculture"" of the 1880s--by now a kind of Hundred Years War of sense and sensibility--remains at the cultural borders, work like Blanchard's has moved questions of aesthetics and gendered identity into the heart of the land. (Sept.)