It’s the birthday of Irish writer Oscar Wilde (books by this author), born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, in Dublin (1854). He’s the author of the plays Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895); and he’s one of the most quotable authors in the English language.
His mother was a famous poet, journalist, and Irish nationalist; his father was a noted ear and eye doctor. He went to college at Oxford, where he began affecting an aristocratic English accent and dressing in eccentric suits and velvet knee breeches.
He stayed in England after college and made a name for himself as a brilliant conversationalist in the high society of London. A movement in art and literature called Aestheticism was becoming popular at the time, and Wilde became known as one of its leading spokesmen. The movement’s motto was “Art for art’s sake.” Wilde began lecturing on the importance of art and beauty in people’s everyday lives. He said: “We spend our days looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is art.” And he said, “Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong.”
Wilde went on a sweeping lecture tour in the United States, stopping everywhere from Des Moines to Denver, from St. Paul to Houston. He visited Walt Whitman in Pennsylvania, where they drank elderberry wine and talked about poetry in America and England. He lectured to rich people and to coal miners. He said, “The most graceful thing I ever beheld was a miner in a Colorado silver mine driving a new shaft with a hammer.”
Soon after he returned to London in 1883, he set himself to writing poetry, plays, and essays. But he didn’t become well known as a serious writer until he came out with his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891, about a beautiful young man who remains young while a portrait of him grows old. Wilde then burst upon the British theater scene with four consecutive comedy hits: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).