From Publishers Weekly
Oscar Wilde, though married to a woman, preferred sex with men; he was convicted of "gross indecency" and sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1895 in what has become a landmark case in queer history. Yet most biographies of the famous playwright and essayist touch only fleetingly on the writer's sexual history. McKenna's masterful, eminently readable new work takes a sharp, very productive turn in Wilde scholarship. While British journalist McKenna (On the Margins
) comprehensively covers Wilde's literary and public career, his biography is organized around Wilde's sexuality as expressed in the sexual acts he performed, and on the centrality of his homosexuality to his identity and politics. Rather than limiting the account to trysts and encounters, McKenna opens new venues for understanding Wilde's life and work. McKenna has unearthed a wealth of new primary and secondary sources—the letters, journals, fiction and poetry of such 19th-century homosexual writers as J.A. Symonds and Ronald Gower—that he uses to paint a vivid and engrossing portrait of Uranian (as 19th-century homosexuals called themselves) life and culture in late Victorian England. McKenna's fundamental argument is that Wilde's sexual identity moved him to the center of a nascent movement to destigmatize and even promote homosexuality as an identity. McKenna writes that Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, "were passionately, fiercely committed to the Cause... [and needed] to proclaim their sexual orientation to the world." Not even a great biography can explain everything about its subject's life—and certainly, despite the groundbreaking research here, this book will raise eyebrows as well as controversy. But it's also the most exciting and important Wilde scholarship to be published in decades. 16 pages of b&w photos. (May)
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No one who has read anything about Wilde written in the past 20 years will be surprised by most of McKenna's revelations, especially the degree to which Wilde lived a barely disguised double life. If he was closeted at all, it was as if in a glass-walled shower stall. He is now Saint Oscar, pilloried by the philistines and martyr to the cause of sexual liberation. His tale--rising to literary eminence only to suddenly fall as low as Reading Gaol--remains astonishing and moving, and McKenna's passion, wit, and good research make it compelling reading. McKenna excels at revealing how and why his behavior so shocked heterosexual Victorians, and why the half-mad marquis of Queensberry, a devotee of physical culture and heterosexist male roles, would work so hard to bring Wilde down. McKenna also describes Wilde's complex emotional life with particular grace and pathos--it is hard not to tear up while McKenna recounts Wilde's miscalculated libel suit against Queensberry--and sympathetically maps Constance Wilde's dysfunctional, heartbreakingly empty marriage to Wilde. Jack HelbigCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved