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Oscar Wilde Our Contemporary.

Philip E. Smith II (ed). Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2008. 350 pages. Paperback $19.75

When considering Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde (and other volumes in this popular and pedagogically helpful series published by the MLA), it is worth reminding ourselves that, strictly speaking, we do not teach works of literature at all. As Northrop Frye was wont to remind us, we do not teach literature. Just as geologists do not teach their students rocks, but geology (the disciplined study of the changes in the physical composition of the earth over time), so English teachers do not teach literature, but the disciplined study of it. That is, we teach literary criticism (by criticism I mean, of course, all of what goes on in literary studies today, including literary history). Students, on the other hand, are apt to assume that they are studying literature itself and often think of "approaches" to literature as somehow getting between them and the direct, unmediated experience of literary works themselves. (This assumption is not, of course, limited to students, as attacks on English studies over the last few decades sadly demonstrate.) Thus, reading a volume like Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde should remind us that, when we put a work by Wilde on a syllabus (or teach a course on him), we need to be aware that what we are going to be doing in the classroom is teaching not The Importance of Being Ernest but ways that the discipline of literary studies has devised for studying and reading literary texts. And if we are self-conscious about the ways of reading that we teach to our students, then perhaps our students will begin to realize that, just as students of history are taught to read texts the way historians do, so students of literature are learning to read like literary critics.

But there is no single, monolithic way of reading like a critic. Critics read texts in many ways, and Smith's collection of essays on approaches to teaching students how critics today read Wilde should prove a helpful companion as we embark on the challenging task of helping our students to become better readers. Wilde's writings are particularly suitable for illustrating the main directions that literary studies has taken over the last few decades. As the editor points out in his introduction,
  Beginning in the 1980s there was a major scholarly and critical
  revaluation upward of Wilde's importance as a representative late
  Victorian writer. Though his writing has always enjoyed popularity,
  Wilde had been routinely dismissed as a witty poseur and minor
  figure until well after the middle of the twentieth century. (19)

Since the rise and fall of literary reputations is not arbitrary, Wilde's relatively recent bullish performance on the literary stock market (to borrow a metaphor from Frye) needs to be accounted for.

One reason for the rise of interest in Wilde is that since he wrote in all of the major literary genres--fiction, poetry and, drama--as well as literary criticism and journalism, his writings come under the purview of students of poetry, fiction, drama, and the history of literary criticism. You certainly don't need to be a specialist in late-Victorian literature to put Wilde on your syllabus. Another reason--probably more important--is that his works can be readily accommodated to the major trends in literary studies since the early 1980s. As Jarlath Killeen observes in "Teaching Oscar Wilde: 'The Portrait of Mr. W. H.' and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian England and English Studies," "one of the most persistent trends in Wilde criticism of the late twentieth century has been the attempt to make him our contemporary" (197). Thus Francesca Coppa ("Teaching Melodrama, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Lady Windermere's Fan") reads what once was regarded as a late-Victorian melodrama "as a modern, even a postmodern play" (119). When we look into the mirror of Wilde's writings today we see--ourselves. As the politics of identity (racial, ethnic, sexual, and national) has come to enjoy a privileged position in contemporary literary studies and in classrooms, Wilde has proved easy to assimilate to these dominant preoccupations. As Smith reminds us, "An extremely productive approach to Wilde has emerged from the explosion of gender, gay, and queer-studies criticism in the last two decades of the twentieth century" (13), and in a chapter entitled "The Irish Wilde," Neil Sammells surveys recent studies of Wilde's nationalism and offers readings of two Wilde works, "The Soul of Man under Socialism" and The Importance of Being Ernest, from the perspective of Wilde's Irish roots. Since many of our students are already familiar with reading literature in the context of our contemporary multi-cultural society, they will find Wilde's trajectory from Dublin to Oxford to London and finally to exile in France a rich topic to explore.

One consequence of reading Wilde as our contemporary is that the historical Wilde, the fin-de-siecle Wilde of the 1880s and 1890s, gets less attention. There is, for example, a noticeable tendency in this collection to pass over Wilde's aestheticism and his advocacy of the doctrine of art for art's sake--something that earlier criticism emphasized--and to focus on the political and cultural subversiveness of Wilde's works. None of the twenty-five contributors quotes the famous aphorism (from the preface of the revised version of The Picture of Dorian Gray), "All art is quite useless." On the contrary, most are eager to show the political usefulness and relevance of Wilde's writings. The Wilde who emerges from this collection is a Wilde whose display of epigrammatic wit and paradox is assimilated to a pedagogy that sees the study of literature as firmly aligned with a politics of dissent, transgression, and liberation.

The proportion of essays devoted to each of the multiple genres in which Wilde wrote reveals, perhaps unconsciously, what modern criticism finds worth attending to in Wilde. For example, of the 25 essays comprising the collection (excluding Smith's introduction), eleven (44%) are devoted to Wilde's plays. This percentage is quite surprising: in a volume devoted to showcasing current approaches to teaching Wilde, the focus still remains on Wilde the playwright, the same emphasis found in pre-1980 criticism of his oeuvre. Equally surprising is the scant attention given to his poetry. While there are sections devoted to the fiction, the dramatic comedies, Salome (which gets is own section), and the criticism, the only discussion of the poetry (except in passing) is Joseph Bristow's perceptive essay on The Ballad of Reading Gaol, "'All Men Kill the Thing They Love': Romance, Realism, and The Ballad of Reading Gaol." Thus the canon of Wilde's literary works now taught has not changed significantly as a result of the theory revolution in literary studies. (I do not mean this as a criticism of the collection, only an observation on what we today pay attention to in Wilde's canon.)

Although there is no separate section on Wilde in the context of fin-de-siecle aestheticism and decadence, these topics are obviously touched upon by several contributors, including the editor in his own contribution, "Oscar Wilde and the 1890s: A Single-Figure Course." One notable exception to the neglect of historicist (neo or otherwise) approaches to Wilde is Nicholas Ruddick's lucid and convincing reading of two of Wilde's fairy tales as instances of his critique of Victorian utilitarianism: "Wildean aestheticism was far more than a rehearsal of the slogan 'art for art's sake,'" says Ruddick.
  It offered both a radical critique of the crudely utilitarian
  materialism of the late Victorian era and a decadent (or
  precociously postmodernist) insight into the superannuated state of
  nineteenth-century Romanticism. [...] I have found that the study of
  a pair of shorter and more accessible works can quickly lead classes
  to a clear and by no means superficial understanding of the
  significance of Wildean aestheticism. (93)

What Ruddick shows is that for Wilde, aestheticism was not a retreat from history but a means of entering and critiquing it. The volume would, I believe, have been strengthened by the inclusion of more essays focusing on teaching Wilde in the context of late-Victorian history and culture, especially given the "turn to history" that followed upon the theory revolution. By turning Wilde into our contemporary, we run the risk of forgetting the historical Wilde.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the collection is the wide range of essays discussing the literary context of Wilde's work, especially the plays. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's "Wilde about Ibsen: The Fusion of Dramatic Modes in A Woman of No Importance" helpfully situates this society comedy in the triple context of nineteenth-century melodrama, the well-made play, and (drawing on Kerry Powell's groundbreaking Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s) Ibsen's modernization of the drama. Eszter Szalczerz's essay on Salome also situates the play in the context of theatre history, particularly the emergence of Symbolism, one of the first European avant-garde movements. "The study of the play as a piece of theatre," she remarks,
  calls for an interdisciplinary approach in several respects. Salome
  can be studied by students as a quintessential example of symbolist
  aesthetics in its combination of a variety of media and sensory
  experiences. ... [It] draws on an archetypal and at the same time
  thoroughly fin de siecle theme employed by several different art
  forms, including painting, graphic arts, music, literature, and
  theatre. In turn the play itself engendered numerous transpositions
  into other media: opera, dance, film. Salome therefore accommodates
  a wide range of techniques in teaching, from textual analysis to
  multimedia demonstrations. (151-52)

The play's relationship to Symbolism is further explored by Beth Tashery Shannon in her "Viewing Salome Symbolically."

Recent critical and pedagogical interest in a literary text's relationships to other media, especially film, is reflected in the fact that the major essay on teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray, Jonathan Alexander's "Dorian Gray in the Twentieth Century: The Politics and Pedagogy of Filming Oscar Wilde's Novel," focuses not on the text of the novel but on the three most famous film adaptations of it: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Secret of Dorian Gray (1970), and The Sins of Dorian Gray (1983). "Reviewing Dorian Gray through the lens of various film representations," says Alexander, "gives students a specific sense of changing attitudes about homoeroticism and its representation; methods of suppressing, foreclosing on, or closeting the homoerotic in the service of bolstering dominant paradigms of meaning making and orality; and the use of the homoerotic to forward a particular film's (usually moralistic) agenda" (75). This approach shifts attention away from the 1890 novel to the changing cultural attitudes toward and representations of homosexuality and homoeroticism reflected in film adaptations of it. Like its near-contemporaries, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula, Dorian Gray is in danger of becoming identified with film adaptations of it--the same fate that earlier befell Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Certainly one reason for the popularity of Wilde in the teaching canon is that his works can lead students to a discussion of "relevant" issues of identity politics that figure prominently in today's classrooms. Students can read Wilde as their contemporary. Thus it is hardly surprising, and doubtless a sign of the times, that Salome, rather than The Importance of Being Ernest, is the work explicitly used to illustrate contemporary approaches to teaching Wilde, receiving almost as much attention as the all the other plays combined. Salome is the only work to have a separate section devoted to it. This is hardly unexpected, since the play readily accommodates itself to contemporary preoccupations with gender and the intersection of literature and psycho-sexual theories of desire and the body. As Samuel Lyndon Gladden points out in "Unveiling Salome: The Word-Made-Flesh Undone":
  Teaching Salome presents an opportunity to show students how Wilde's
  work engages artistic and historical traditions as well as how it
  intersects ongoing conversations about a range of cultural anxieties,
  chiefly those concerning bodies and beliefs, pleasures and faiths.
  Wilde's play anticipates late twentieth-century debates about the
  social place and function of pleasure and about the borders
  demarcating two of pleasure's representational modes, the erotic and
  the pornographic. (180)

Salome, in short, is much more appealing to today's audiences and critics than Lady Windermere.

This collection also reflects the fact that Wilde's literary criticism is taken much more seriously today than it was a generation or two ago, when it was often dismissed as superficial or ignored as the insubstantial paradoxes tossed off by a poseur. The recent interest in Wilde the critic has no doubt been sparked at least in part by the discovery that his criticism seems to anticipate recent developments in literary theory, particularly post-structuralism. Perhaps the most famous example of this recent appropriation of Wilde the critic is Terry Eagleton's remark, in his Introduction to St. Oscar, that Wilde, whom he dubs "the Irish Roland Barthes" (viii), was a "proto-deconstructionist" who "prefigures the insights of contemporary cultural theory" (vii, viii).Wilde the critic, as well as Wilde the artist, has become our contemporary. Three studies published in the late 1990s address the earlier neglect of Wilde's criticism: Laurence Danson's Wilde's Intentions: The Artist in His Criticism (1997), Julia Prewitt Brown's Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde's Philosophy of Art (1997), and Bruce Bashford's Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Humanist (1999). Following upon these revaluations, Joe Law in "Using Wilde's Intentions to Help Students Establish Wilde's Intentions" instructively places Wilde's criticism in the context of the criticism of Plato, Sidney, Arnold, Ruskin, and Pater, showing how Wilde's seemingly personal critical pronouncements on art emerged from his dialogue with and reaction to a long critical tradition.

After reading this volume, I pulled down from my shelf a collection of commentaries on Wilde edited by Richard Ellmann in Prentice-Hall's Twentieth Century Views series. Published forty years ago, Ellmann's compilation of "views" on Wilde makes for instructive reading when juxtaposed with Smith's new anthology of up-to-date approaches to teaching him. Reading the two collections in succession reminded me that all criticism is always criticism "at the present time." What is most striking about the Ellmann volume is that, apart from an essay by Ellmann himself on Salome, together with an extract from G. Wilson's Knight's book The Christian Renaissance (1962) and another from Eric Bentley's book The Playwright as Thinker (1946), few of the contributors to the anthology are what we today would call critics. Most of them--William Butler Yeats, Andre Gide, Lionel Johnson, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Mary McCarthy, W. H. Auden, Thomas Mann, and Jorge Luis Borges--are major authors in their own right. Ellmann was, it would seem, hard-pressed to find any literary criticism to include in the volume. Seven of the "views" are poems: two by Lionel Johnson, one by John Betjeman ("The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel"), two by Alfred Douglas, and one each by Brendan Behan and Hart Crane. What this list of names clearly suggests is that before 1970, Oscar Wilde was a writer of more interest to other writers than to professional critics and English professors, a fact confirmed by Ellmann's devotion of a substantial proportion of his introduction to a discussion of Wilde's impact on Yeats and Gide. The other thing that emerges from Ellmann's collection of views is the sense of Wilde as someone utterly different and alien, a figure very much belonging to the decadent and aesthetic 1890s: the Wilde of this collection is definitely not our contemporary. Mary McCarthy--certainly not a light-weight when it comes to literary judgment--sums up this earlier image of an alien Wilde when, in a piece revealingly entitled "The Unimportance of Being Oscar," she says, "There is something outre in all of Wilde's work that makes one sympathize with the Marquess of Queensbury" (Ellmann107). Her title and her (to us) eccentric judgment seem to belong to a different era: she is, astonishingly, closer to the Marquess of Queensbury's world than to ours. Half a century later, Wilde is just the opposite of outre: his importance arises from the fact that, as Smith's collection shows, we can look into his works and see mirrored our own deepest cultural and political interests. Perhaps more than any other Victorian, Wilde is our contemporary. But might not Wilde have become too familiar a figure to us, too much our contemporary? I can't help but wonder: Do we critics perform a disservice to a writer who flourished more than a century ago if we turn him into someone on whom we can project our own concerns and anxieties rather than viewing him as a figure utterly different from us, and valuing him precisely for that difference?


Eagleton, Terry. Introduction. St. Oscar. Derry, Ire.: Field Day, 1989. i-xii. Print.

Ellmann, Richard, ed. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Print.

NILS CLAUSSON has taught in the English Department at the University of Regina (in Canada) since 1984. His primary areas of specialization are Victorian and early twentieth-century British literature. He has published on a wide range of topics and authors, including Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Disraeli, Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Gaskell, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and the poets of the Great War.
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Title Annotation:Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde
Author:Clausson, Nils
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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