Oscar Wilde Discovers America
“I have … a black servant, who is my slave – in a free country one cannot live without a slave…” (Oscar Wilde, January 1882). Oscar Wilde’s well-documented American lecture tour in 1882 offers a window on the country he encountered. Rather than focusing on Wilde and his experience as the title implies, Edwards builds his carefully researched novel on the fragmentary documents mentioning Wilde’s American valet. His identity is vague enough to give Edwards free rein to create a complete fictional character while remaining true to the historical record of the tour.
Edwards imagines the valet as William Traquair, a twenty-two year old New Yorker nurtured and educated within the wealthy white family that employs his parents as servants. Fresh out of college, William is recruited to serve as valet for Oscar Wilde when he arrives in New York. Naive, highly educated and inclined toward delicate aesthetic sensibilities, the valet is a great admirer of Wilde’s ideas and overlooks the menial nature of his job for the chance to bask in the great man’s presence.
This coming-of-age novel follows William on the cross-country tour as he comes to terms with his racial and sexual identity and searches for a place in his own family and in American society. He meets long lost cousins, loses his virginity ever so discreetly, and develops a personal attachment to Wilde that is emotional as well as intellectual. If William has a fault, it is his stiffly formal and verbose style of narration, giving the book a slow and stately pace. The author’s bibliographic note states that most of Wilde’s dialogue is not exact quotes but written to give the flavor of the famous wit. For example (p. 61): “Immortality! A few lines in badly written history books? That’s not eternal life. That’s eternal damnation!”