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Napoleon Sarony photograph of Oscar Wilde in New York, 1882
A new exhibition in Philadelphia,
co-curated by two scholars at the University of Delaware, explores Oscar
Wilde’s connections to the city, while showcasing three newly
discovered works by the 19th-century Irish writer, who is an icon in
literary history and sexual politics.
The discoveries were made as Margaret D. Stetz and Mark Samuels Lasner were gathering materials for the exhibition Everything is Going on Brilliantly: Oscar Wilde and Philadelphia, now on view at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Experts on Wilde and other Victorian writers and artists, Stetz and
Samuels Lasner had started thinking about developing such an exhibition
when they saw that Opera Philadelphia would be staging the East Coast
premiere of the biographical opera Oscar, which ran from Feb. 6-15.
“Our idea was that there should be something that tells the story of
Oscar Wilde’s important and enduring connections to Philadelphia,” said
Stetz, who is the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies
and professor of humanities at UD. “He visited Philadelphia two times
in 1882 to give lectures, and highly significant things came out of
those visits, both at the time and afterwards. It’s an exhibition
focused on Wilde’s multi-faceted relationships with a city that is not
normally associated with him.”
Two galleries at the Rosenbach have been decorated to resemble
Aesthetic-movement drawing rooms — the kind where receptions were held
by prominent Philadelphians to welcome Wilde. The first gallery
highlights his two 1882 visits to Philadelphia, as well as the side
trips he made to Camden, New Jersey, to see Walt Whitman. The second
illustrates the many ways in which Philadelphia’s cultural life has
continued to be influenced by Wilde and his works, up to the present.
This exhibition also features documents related to the first publication in 1890 of Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in a Philadelphia-based magazine.
In preparing the exhibition, Samuels Lasner, who is senior research
fellow at the University of Delaware Library, contacted numerous
institutions and libraries in the Philadelphia area. The Free Library of
Philadelphia’s inventory from its Rare Books Department included three
items that Samuels Lasner recognized immediately as of great
significance to everyone who studies Wilde.
The materials, which were donated to the Free Library in 1978 by the
widow of Richard Gimbel, a major Philadelphia book collector, weren’t
hidden and were available for study, but researchers hadn’t been aware
of their existence — not even Wilde specialists who had produced the
standard scholarly editions of his work.
“I asked the right question of the right person at the right time,”
Samuels Lasner said. “It just happened that nobody had asked that
The new finds consist of a notebook from about 1880 with unpublished
drafts of some of Wilde’s poems, alongside numerous drawings and doodles
he made on the pages; a typescript from 1892 of his play Salome,
with his hand-written corrections and additions; and portions of a
letter by Wilde that includes part of an early version of his poem “The
Ballad of Reading Gaol,” with unpublished variant lines.
Everything is Going on Brilliantly features those discoveries,
in addition to a variety of other items from the Free Library and other
public and private collections that connect Wilde to Philadelphia. The
exhibition includes photographs, newspaper clippings, programs and
posters from productions of Wilde’s plays; works by Philadelphians that
were inspired by Wilde; and also letters, diaries, and drawings by
Philadelphians who encountered him at the time of his 1882 lectures.
tetz and Samuels Lasner said they were aware of some of these items,
local collectors and other Philadelphia connections before they began
planning the exhibition, but they found many more during the process.
The exhibition’s title uses a phrase, “Everything is going on
brilliantly,” that appears in a letter now owned by the Rosenbach. Wilde
wrote it shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, to tell a friend in
London how pleased he was with his reception there in January 1882. But
according to Stetz and Samuels Lasner, that phrase also describes the
continuing bond between Wilde and the city.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Poetical notebook of Oscar Wilde, ca. 1879-80, from the Free Library of Philadelphia Literary Manuscripts collection.
Everything is Going on Brilliantly: Oscar Wilde and Philadelphia is on display through Sunday, April 26, at The Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, near Rittenhouse Square.
The Rosenbach calls it a “groundbreaking exhibition … offering fresh
insight into the inimitable writer’s work and creative process.”
By showcasing the newly discovered works, “We hope to share with the
public a new understanding of Wilde’s meaning and process that comes to
light only when we see the true relationship between and among the
objects,” said Judith Guston, curator and director of collections for
As part of the programming related to the exhibition, Stetz and
Samuels Lasner gave lectures at the Rosenbach on Feb 5. Stetz’s talk,
“When Oscar Met Philly,” focused on how Philadelphians viewed Wilde, and
revealed what both they and he got from his visits in 1882. Samuels
Lasner, who is a noted collector of late-Victorian art and literature,
and whose collection is on loan to the University of Delaware Library,
spoke on “Philadelphia Collects Wilde,” about the history of important
Wilde holdings in local institutions.
On Jan. 28 and 29, Stetz also gave two lectures about Wilde at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, sponsored by Opera Philadelphia.
‘Wilde winter’ draws wide attention
Philadelphia area media, as well as the national press, noticed what Fine Books and Collections magazine described as “a case of Wilde fever” and the Philadelphia Gay News called “a Wilde winter” in the city.
The discovery of the new Wilde documents, the exhibition at The Rosenbach, the opera Oscar and other events were covered in a variety of media, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, where culture writer Peter Dobrin quoted scholars saying the discoveries were “hugely significant.”
Fine Books and Collectibles online wrote about the discovery and the “groundbreaking exhibition” in a Dec. 3 article and again in a Feb. 12 piece.
Philadelphia public television station WHYY broadcast a report during its weekly arts show, Articulate with Jim Cotter, on Feb. 5. On WHYY radio, a Feb. 5 Newsworks show included a feature on the Wilde events by reporter Peter Crimmins, and Radio Times on Feb. 9 provided information about the exhibition in a piece about the opera.
On Jan. 22, the Philadelphia Gay News highlighted the opera and other events, saying that Everything is Going on Brilliantly “makes the case that the City of Brotherly Love has had an enduring place in [Wilde’s] life and art.”
A review of the exhibition appeared in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 18, written by Willard Spiegelman, who is Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University.
Numerous other newspapers, from Boston to Camden, New Jersey (where
The Walt Whitman House is a National Historic Landmark that is open to
visitors), also have featured news about the exhibition.