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Notes on Oscar Wilde's Transatlantic Gender Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 March 2012

Mansfield College, University of Oxford. Email:


For decades now, Oscar Wilde has been celebrated in academic and popular circles as a transgressor of gender boundaries and a devotee of the woman's world and an “appreciative inheritor of women's culture.” What has been underappreciated, however, is that Wilde also acted as an advocate of gender binaries in ways that significantly challenge this reputation. This article argues that Wilde's writings reveal a traditionalist critique of American gender politics that reflects his concern over the management of cultural institutions and values, and the increasingly precarious place of men within them. Rather than locating these anxieties in Britain, Wilde displaced them onto the United States, a country whose cultural institutions he had become intimate with during a year-long lecture tour in the early 1880s. By exposing and problematizing Wilde's response to the late nineteenth-century crisis in masculinity and his disappointment at the failure of American men to take their place in society as arbiters of taste, this article underscores the need for a nuanced reassessment of Wildean gender politics. At stake here are fundamental questions about how a transgressive politics sits alongside traditionalism, and how a conservative gender bias in transatlantic fin de siècle culture operated even in the period's progressive circles.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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1 Oscar Wilde, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), 129.

2 Ibid., 139.


3 Ibid., 172.


4 Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 54.

5 Conrad, Peter, Imagining America (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), 60Google Scholar.

6 Wilde, Artist, 60–61.

7 Ibid., 64.


8 Ibid., 59.


9 Ibid., 61.


10 John Stokes, “Wilde the Journalist,” in Peter Raby, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 77.

11 Quoted in Ellmann, Richard, Oscar Wilde (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987), 275Google Scholar.

12 Powell, Kerry, Acting Wilde: Victorian Sexuality, Theatre, and Oscar Wilde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. See especially chapter 2, “Pure Wilde: Feminism and Masculinity in Lady Windermere's Fan, Salomé, and A Woman of No Importance.”

13 Schaffer, Talia, “Fashioning Aestheticism by Aestheticizing Fashion: Wilde, Beerbohm, and the Male Aesthetes’ Sartorial Codes,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 28, 1 (2000), 41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Showalter notes that The Picture of Dorian Gray makes clear “the contradiction between the decadent and the feminist position.” Showalter, Elaine, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York: Viking, 1990), 175Google Scholar. Ledger's valuable rereading of the gender dynamics at work in The Yellow Book concludes that “an old-fashioned, reactionary species of misogyny” was palpable in the periodical from its very first issue. Ledger, Sally, “Wilde Women and The Yellow Book: The Sexual Politics of Aestheticism and Decadence,” English Literature in Transition 1880–1920, 50, 1 (2007), 10Google Scholar. See also Laurel Brake, “Endgames: The Politics of The Yellow Book, or Decadence, Gender and the New Journalism,” in idem, ed., The Endings of Epochs (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1995), 38–64. Margaret Stetz, “Debating Aestheticism from a Feminist Perspective,” in Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades, eds., Women and British Aestheticism (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 25–43.

15 Giles, Paul, Atlantic Republic: The American Tradition in English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 138Google Scholar.

16 Wilde, Oscar, Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1999), 1095Google Scholar.

17 Bowlby, Rachel, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (New York: Methuen, 1985), 11Google Scholar.

18 Showalter, 170.

19 Wilde, Works, 47.

20 Thais E. Morgan, “Victorian Effeminacies,” in Richard Dellamora, ed., Victorian Sexual Dissidence (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 114.

21 Stetz, Margaret, “The Bi-social Oscar Wilde and ‘Modern’ Women,” Nineteenth-Century Literature, 55, 4 (2001), 524CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Wilde, Works, 1081.

23 James, Henry, The Ambassadors (New York: Norton, 1964), 37Google Scholar.

24 James, Henry, Complete Stories, 1874–1884 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1999), 495Google Scholar.

25 James, Henry, The American Scene (New York: Penguin, 1994), 254–55Google Scholar.

26 See Douglas, Ann, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1996)Google Scholar; Windholz, Anne M., “An Emigrant and a Gentleman: Imperial Masculinity, British Magazines, and the Colony That Got Away,” Victorian Studies, 42, 4 (1999), 631–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Wilde, Works, 938.

28 Wilde, Oscar, Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde (London: Methuen and Co., 1908), 181Google Scholar.

29 Wilde, Complete Letters, 138.

30 “Oscar in New York,” The Nation, 12 Jan. 1882.

31 Wilde, Essays, 175.

32 Ibid., 176.


33 Wilde, Works, 930.

34 Press cuttings relating to Oscar Wilde, kept by Harold Monro, British Library, Add. 57767.

35 Roger B. Stein, “Artifact as Ideology: The Aesthetic Movement in Its American Cultural Context,” in Doreen Bolger Burke, ed., In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), 24.

36 Mary Warner Blanchard, Oscar Wilde's America: Counterculture in the Gilded Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 10.

37 Ibid., 17.


38 Ibid., 14.


39 Dowling, Linda, The Vulgarization of Art: The Victorians and Aesthetic Democracy (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), xiiGoogle Scholar.

40 Stein, 24.

41 Regenia Gagnier, “Wilde and the Victorians,” in Raby, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, 28.

42 “Mr. Oscar Wilde,” Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, 9 Feb. 1883. See also, “Mr. Oscar Wilde,” New York Times, 10 Jan. 1882, 5; “Oscar Wilde Gets a Reception,” National Police Gazette, 21 Jan. 1882, 10.

43 Wilde, Letters, 161.

44 Lewis, Lloyd and Smith, Henry Justin, Oscar Wilde Discovers America, 1882 (New York: B. Blom, 1967), 242Google Scholar.

45 Dowling, 1–2.

46 Donoghue, Denis, Walter Pater: Lover of Strange Souls (New York: Knopf, 1995), 87Google Scholar.

47 Walter Pater, The Renaissance, ed. Adam Phillips (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), xxx.

48 Quoted in Ellmann, 159.

49 Quoted in Lewis and Smith, 75.

50 Pater, 151.

51 Ibid., 152.


52 Wilde, Artist, 60.

53 Pater, 132.

54 Wilde, Artist, 61.

55 Pater, 153.

56 Conrad, Imagining America, 65.

57 Henry James, “Daisy Miller: A Study,” in The Portable Henry James, ed. John Auchard (New York: Penguin, 2003), 10.

58 Wilde, Works, 966.

59 Wilde, Artist, 60.

60 Ibid., 60.


61 Ibid., 61.


62 Hofer, Matthew and Scharnhorst, Gary, eds., Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 178Google Scholar.

63 Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. Samuel Lipman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), 35.

64 Ibid., 68.


65 Wilde, Essays, 177.

66 Arnold, 15.

67 Ibid., 14.


68 Renan quoted in Arnold, 13.

69 Wilde, Artist, 60.

70 Wilde, Works, 184.

71 Ibid., 186.


72 Ibid., 204.


73 Ibid., 202.


74 Dellamora, Victorian Sexual Dissidence, 8.

75 Davidoff quoted in Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell, eds., Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 13.

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