Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Spin

In his 2014 book Wilde in America, David M. Friedman argued that Oscar Wilde invented modern celebrity.  He was the first of what is now a familiar type: the person who seeks fame in order to enable a career rather than as the result of a career. As he put it:

It is a mind-set where everyone thinks they could be famous and, even more to the point, should be. It is a belief system in which “celebrity,” a word that once referred exclusively to persons of achievement—artists, athletes, politicians, and so on, even criminals, who left their mark on history through their deeds—has expanded its meaning to include persons famous merely for being famous, a status won by manipulating the media. It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.

Wilde’s greatest creation was arguably the persona of Oscar Wilde. After suffering the public shame of a trial for gross indecency, the document he wrote in prison De Profundis can be read as the author’s mourning process for the loss of that persona.

When he came out of jail he faced what we might today call a serious branding problem. Enter Robert Baldwin Ross. If Wilde was the first modern celebrity then his trusted friend, business advisor and later literary executor was something else. He was the first modern crisis PR manager.

Ross had a great challenge ahead of him. He had to overcome the popular notion that Wilde was a Svengali who lured young men to immoral practices. He had to convince the public at large that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he wanted to keep the symbol of Oscar Wilde available to the counter-cultural community of homosexual men, while keeping that aspect from interfering with his goal of a wider market for Wilde’s works. As a crisis PR manager, Ross was incredibly successful. Ross achieved something no one thought possible– he brought the Wilde estate out of bankruptcy, created a growing market for his works, and with the release of an edited version of De Profundis, the British public started to reassess the man and the artist. If it weren’t for Ross’s efforts, it is entirely possible that Wilde would be a much more obscure figure than he is today.

But as a PR manager, Ross was not acting as an archivist or historian, he was practicing spin. Ross edited Wilde’s works in places to remove lines that might be read as dangerous innuendo. As he painstakingly compiled and edited works whose copyrights had been sold and scattered, he created a more unified Wildean literary style in the process.  Beyond that, he crafted a mythology about Wilde. The mythology of Wilde persists to this day.

One of the interesting documents I came across while researching Oscar’s Ghost was a dissertation on the artist Simeon Solomon by Carolyn Conroy.  (Conroy, Carolyn. He Hath Mingled with the Ungoldly: The Life of Simeon Solomon After 1873, With a Survey of the Extant Works. PH.D. Dissertation. University of York, December, 2009.)

Simeon Solomon was an artist whose work, which featured beautiful androgynous youths, was much admired in the Wlde circle. In 1873, at the height of his artistic career Solomon was arrested in a public urinal for attempting “feloniously to commit the abominable crime of buggery.”

Robert Ross wrote the most influential obituary of Solomon. As he told it, Solomon’s arrest was the beginning of a sad decline. After these events the artist was shunned by polite society, his work suffered until he was producing worthless copies of the subjects of his glory days. He ended his life as a poor, friendless alcoholic. If this tragic tale of the brilliant homosexual artist destroyed by the Philistines calls to mind the tragic last years of Oscar Wilde it is no coincidence.
The Ross obituary contains stories of Solomon breaking into a house to rob it while drunk and being admitted to an asylum by friends. Conroy investigated these claims and found that “much of this information is, simply either incorrect or unlikely.” In fact, Conroy found that Solomon was enjoying great popularity in America at the time Ross described him as a shadow of his former self.

The tragic narrative of society destroying its artists in a quest for moral purity served a purpose. It asked the public to consider whether such laws and policies were in the public interest. What is more, it created a compelling narrative at a time when the most popular fiction ended not with happy endings but with tragedy.

But to criticize Ross as a bad historian is to assume he intended to act as a historian. Ross agreed with Wilde that what was important about a story was not its basis in fact, but how it affected the reader. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” By crafting an enduring mythology, he was acting as a consummate and pioneering spin master, perhaps one of the finest ever to work in the field.

Interestingly, even Lord Alfred Douglas, at a time when he was at odds with Ross, wrote that he believed such mythologizing had probably been necessary.

But mythologizing does not exist in a vaccuum. In crafting the narrative to the best effect for Wilde, Ross was also impacting Douglas. In my next article, I will talk about that aspect of the story.

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