Oscar Wilde's America

Counterculture in the Gilded Age
Blanchard, Mary W.
Date published: 
October 1998

'Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.' - Oscar Wilde, 1891. In 1882 Oscar Wilde toured America as the 'Apostle of Aestheticism', his wit and brilliance and deliberate outrageousness creating controversy among audiences across the continent. The America visited by Wilde was a nation still badly shaken by the trauma of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In this atmosphere Wilde's message of regeneration through art and beauty seemed to many Americans to open new horizons of social possibility. In this book, the first cultural history of the aesthetic movement in the United States, Mary W. Blanchard provides an elegant, imaginative account of a neglected dimension of American history. American Victorian culture will never look as monolithic, nor as prudish, again. Blanchard shows that aestheticism was a wide-ranging popular movement, implemented by an array of tastemakers, resisted by the moral guardians of Victorianism. She constructs the fascinating (and previously unrecognised) lives of the female visionaries who used the decorative arts to assault the conventions of their own middle-class milieu and to advance in the social and business worlds of the Gilded Age. She also shows how the movement allowed new forms of identity for men - in particular feminised or homosexual roles that were profoundly at odds with Victorian notions of manliness. Drawing on evidence from material culture, popular media, and history and literature, Blanchard reveals aestheticism as a vibrant oppositional movement in the American Gilded Age. Mary W. Blanchard is an Associate Fellow and member of the Advisory Board at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis.