One hundred years ago, in the London of the elderly Queen Victoria, an event occurred which put on center stage questions of sex and morality. Starring in this drama was Oscar Wilde, novelist, poet, playwright, aesthete, reputed homosexual, enigma. The trials of Oscar Wilde offered the court of public opinion its first opportunity to debate the ethics of homosexuality; unfortunately for Wilde, his trials offered the nation's legal system the same opportunity. Convicted of practicing "indecent acts," the notorious writer spent the next two years kept to hard labor in prison, dying barely two and a half years after his release.
Wilde's was a notoriety dependent on its elusiveness. Constantly challenging bourgeois Victorian notions of identity, he was the period's central chameleon-like figure, adaptively blending into his environment, but always commenting on the nature of that environment in the course of the performance. Wilde's was a life dedicated to art. He lived through art and treated life as an aesthetic, operating, perhaps perversely, through constant, self-conscious confounding of categories of meaning. When the verdict of guilty was returned for Oscar Wilde, it represented the violent reassertion of convention in response to the threats posed by his life and art.
To commemorate the centenary of the Wilde trials, this exhibition and catalogue of essays return to the many sites of disruption visited by, profoundly changed by, Oscar Wilde. Drawing on the extensive holdings of first editions, autograph letters, photographs, periodicals, and ephemera from the Fales Collection of English and American Fiction, graduate students in the Victorian Studies Group at New York University trace the powerful impact of Oscar Wilde in the aesthetic, political, spiritual, and moral circles of late-Victorian England. The books and manuscripts analyzed, interpreted, and displayed are the textual fossil remains of the culture of Oscar Wilde's transgressions and containment--the footsteps of the chameleon.
The containment of Wilde himself in prison ultimately failed to contain the radical nature of his commentary. Through the act of "Querying Spaces," of analyzing the variety of spatial logics constructed in Wilde's texts, we hope to engage the act of "Reading Wilde"--not to pin him down, but rather to trace the effects of this most powerful chameleon.
The exhibition, first mounted in the Fales Collection of NYU's Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, has now been adapted for the World Wide Web over the pages that follow. The exhibit is grouped according to ten themes of interest in the life and work of Oscar Wilde:
The Tired Chameleon: A Study in Hues
Oscar Wilde's Epigrammatic Theater
The Scarlet Woman: Wilde and Religion
Wilde at Oxford/Oxford Gone Wilde
The Artist's Studio
Wilde and the Club
Wilde at Home
Restyling the Secret of the Opium Den
After Reading: Prison, Publication, and Personal Letters
To facilitate your exploration of Wilde space, we have organized a Guided Tour, which you are free to follow at your leisure. But we also invite you to browse the exhibit on your own terms, using the Home-Page icon:
which appears at the bottom of each page between the Tour Guides: (back) and (forward). A click on the Home-Page icon will bring you instantly back to the Table of Contents above, from which you can link to any part of the exhibit. As you peruse, keep in mind that a click on any of the small images beside exhibit text will bring up a full-size presentation of that image. And don't forget to visit to the Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces corresponding catalogue of essays, written by graduate students in the Victorian Studies Group at NYU, accessible with the link below.
Questions and Comments
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