Oscar Wilde in the Wild West: Caricature, Effeminacy and Celtic Primitivism
Keywords:Oscar Wilde, aestheticism, Wild West, effeminacy, Victorian caricature, Anglo-Irish relations
This paper goes back to 1882 in order to re-visit Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of the United States and examine it in the context of contemporary perception of effeminacy and Anglo-Saxon view of Celtic otherness. Taking into consideration the specific cultural circumstances of the United States, Anglo-American and Anglo-Irish relations, the paper focuses on the contemporary caricatures of Oscar Wilde as a reflection of gender and racial prejudice evoked by his effeminate and culturally divergent figure. Looming as a backdrop of Wilde’s lectures is the British perception of the United States as an exotic cultural space whose primitivism excites romantic fascination, but whose economic rise and growing political influence provoke anxiety over the prospects of imperial order and Britain’s status as a global leader. Wilde did not arrive in New York as an Irishman, but as a cultural emissary of England. Assuming the role of an aesthetic missionary who revealed modern tendencies of English art to the materialistically inclined American society, Wilde made his performances an implicit confirmation of mother country’s cultural superiority. The effeminacy of the eccentric lecturer was partly accepted as an artistic pose and manifestation of European sophistication, but it was also interpreted as a symptom of degeneration which subverted his masculinity, as well as a mark of Celtic backwardness which prevented integration with the Anglo-Saxon race.
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