Although the poet’s famed 1882 meeting with Oscar Wilde is now perhaps best known for alleged sexual shenanigans, David M. Friedman, the author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity, emphasizes the role their confab played in the development of celebrity culture. Friedman writes, “the real subject of Whitman’s conversation [with Wilde] was how to build a career in public, with all the display that self-glorifying achievement requires”:
We can deduce that with confidence because the first thing Whitman did when he reached his den was to give his guest [Wilde] a photograph of himself. … The portrait Whitman gave Wilde in 1882 appeared on his next book, Specimen Days & Collect, an assemblage of travel diaries, nature writing, and Civil War reminiscences. (Whitman had spent the war years in Washington, working as a government clerk and volunteering as a hospital visitor.) He is in profile in the photograph, sitting in a wicker chair wearing a wide-brimmed hat, an open-necked shirt, and a cardigan. A butterfly is perched on his index finger, held in front of his face. “I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies,” Whitman once told a friend. Years later Whitman’s “butterfly” was found in the Library of Congress. It was made of cardboard; it had been tied to his finger with string.
By handing Wilde that photo Whitman was teaching him that fame as a writer is only partly about literature. It is also about committing oneself to a performance. Such role-playing isn’t the act of a phony; in Whitman’s mind every pose he struck was authentic. This type of authenticity – the fashioning of an image one would be faithful to in public – Wilde had experienced on a small scale playing the aesthete on the campus of Oxford’s Magdalen College and at parties in London. It was instructive to have its truth verified by a literary star who had proved its efficacy on an international scale. Wilde had always believed there was nothing inglorious about seeking glory. By handing Wilde his portrait, Whitman was confirming that instinct.
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)