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.