If Oscar Wilde had behaved himself, he would be little remembered today. His poetry has been mostly forgotten; his witty plays are a staple of the community theater circuit, but they don't achieve the high watermark of great theater.
But Wilde was incapable of lying low. At the pinnacle of success he defied the conventions of British Victorian society, egged on by his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. He eventually went to prison for multiple sex acts with young men, and today he's a symbol of cultural rebellion and gay martyrdom.
Tragedies make the best stories, and Matthew Sturgis makes the most of Wilde's in his new biography, "Oscar Wilde: A Life." Sturgis' clear-eyed understanding of Wilde is acute, his narrative assured. Drawing on new material, including the full transcript of the libel trial that set Wilde on the path to prison, he assembles an indelible portrait of a confounding and complex man.
Born to a well-known Dublin couple, Wilde's life changed when he won a scholarship to Oxford. There he stood out, with his unusual height and outrageous outfits, "more like the incarnation of Apollo than an ordinary human being," and began his lifelong preoccupation with the Greek version of man-boy love.
From Oxford, Wilde moved on to London, where he cut such a wide social swath that he was parodied by Punch. Already a celebrity in England, he traveled to more than 100 American cites (including Minneapolis and St. Paul) to lecture on aesthetics and shore up his finances.
Back in England, Wilde fell in love with Constance Lloyd, had two sons with her and hit his stride penning plays like "A Woman of No Importance" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," theater that entertained Victorian audiences while lacerating their hypocrisies.
But his latent sexuality would not be denied, and Wilde dropped hints of his inclinations in "The Picture of Dorian Gray," a dark novel of secret lives. After he met Douglas at Oxford, the couple, "fired by a shared and predatory enthusiasm for sex with others," set up at London hotels and procured services from a parade of young men.
And then Wilde made a grave error. Enraged when Douglas' outraged father left a card at Wilde's club labeling him a sodomite, Wilde sued him for libel, unaware that the aristocrat had engaged detectives to follow him. When Wilde saw the witness list for the trial, young men he'd had sex with, "a vertiginous chasm" opened at Wilde's feet.
He lost the libel judgment and was arraigned on multiple charges of gross indecency. Sentenced to two years in prison, Wilde and his reputation never recovered.
Sturgis captures Wilde's contradictions: generous but erratically cruel, brilliant but careless. He doesn't fully analyze Wilde's wanton streak, but the evidence is abundant: Wilde opined that "nothing is good in moderation. You cannot know the good in anything until you have torn the heart out of it by excess."
Today he's famous for those excesses: "the countercultural rebel, the homosexual 'martyr,' … the precursor of cool." Was immortality worth it? If only Oscar Wilde were around to tell us.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a book critic in Seattle and a former member of the National Book Critics Circle board.
Oscar Wilde: A Life
By: Matthew Sturgis.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 864 pages, $40.