John's "explore our relationship with" frame for Convivial Questions offers plenty of latitude for interpretation of the subject and the tenor of modalities of response. This week's opportunity to explore explodes out of the gift of The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde (a hefty shelf of grey buckram, redolent of long storage, pages deckle-edged and, as they say, slightly foxed). I discover that I have actually read very little of Wilde's writings, though I surely know a lot of bits and pieces about himself as a late 19th century Eminence. But, I asked myself, what's the substance of that air of Eminence in its louche Wildean plumage (as Robertson Davies said of George Bernard Shaw: "still of a somewhat sulphurous savour in the nostrils of Tory Toronto")?


See what I've just done, and more exactly not done: exemplified but not defined what 'Eminence' is.

We all have personal Eminences: authors we've read lots of, artists and photographers and musicians we revere, or once revered (revisit all those Bob Dylan records from the 60s and 70s...), persons with whom we associate cultural cachet that we recognize and celebrate.

I'm reminded of a Washington & Lee Library colleague who seemed in every way the image of staid (he was the Special Collections Librarian) but who celebrated Elvis's Birthday every year with a cake in the staff break room... We have a right to our own choice of Eminences.
Anyhow, I thought I'd devote this week to wandering in my own groves of the Eminent, in search of better understanding of the phenomenon of Eminence. While for me the inquiry happened to begin with Oscar Wilde, I have no doubt that you'll find your own, and I'll discover other exemplars that I will want to bring to your attention as this page continues to unwind toward next Wednesday evening.



who are some of your Eminences, whom you'd be stoked to bring to our attention?


And so I Kindled up the latest biography of Wilde (Matthew Sturgis Oscar Wilde: A Life [2021]) and settled in for a couple of days of exploration of the Divine Oscar and his Contemporaries.

The Sarony Photographs
(the photo of Sarony in fez is worth the price of admission)

George du Maurier Punch cartoon, mocking Aesthetes

Jelleby Postlethwaite, a Gilbert & Sullivan character (from Patience) built on lines of Oscar Wilde
is introduced to Society

Oscar Wilde practically invented Celebrity and did a lot to develop Notoriety. I have lots of pages of yellow-pad extracts and rabbithole explorations that might find their way into this narrative, or might not... But here's a summary he himself wrote in De Profundis (1897, published 1905):
I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realized this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realize it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away... (pg 44)
Among those who make appearances in the Oscar Wilde Saga are: Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, Lillie Langtry, the preRaphaelites, James McNeill Whistler, The Prince of Wales, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, D'Oyly Carte, Walt Whitman, Algernon Swinburne...


(I'll remind you that the stuff below is like my fieldnotes—bits of Information captured for tagging and release, coverts and warrens nosed into and marked for possible returns, volatile links I'd like to be able to find again ...never very elegant, perhaps sketchmaps of territory traversed.)
I note that my sense for the essence of Britishness (which is largely Englishness in fact, with a spatter of Irishness...) is rooted in the writings of a phalanx of Eminences, most now long dead, and it occurred to me to summarize my various encounters in a sketch map of my own Eminence territory in the realms of British fiction. Here are the dramatis personae I immediately think of:

...and on Sunday

Realizing that Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians was probably what seeded eminence in my mind, I began with that book, widely thought to have instantiated a new paradigm for biography. The profiles of Cardinal Manning, Dr. Arnold of Rugby, and General Gordon are masterpieces of humbug and hypocrisy unmasked, but Florence Nightingale is treated more kindly.

During the day I was in and out of several books in the Anglophilia shelves of the Library, thinking about how Eminence develops:

Among harvested tidbits, spawning digressions and promising new rabbithole opportunities:

The prize for magnificence of expression and elegance of skewerage goes to this passage from Virginia Woolf's "Am I a Snob?":

I have made one discovery. The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people. The snob is a flutter-brained, hare-brained creature so little satisfied with his or her own standing that in order to consolidate it he or she is always flourishing a title or an honour in other people's faces so that they may believe, and help him to believe what he does not really believe—that he or she is somehow a person of importance. (Moments of Being pg 206)

There's a sour side to Eminence, which is that it can be manufactured and manipulated. It's entirely possible to be Eminent without being Admirable, and it's remarkable how varied the feet of clay are among the Eminent.

and on the Glorious 4th:

The Mutual Admiration Society, or Mr Punch against the aesthetes (Anna Anderson, 2009) (Includes a number of Punch cartoons)

In Nincompoopiana--The Mutual Admiration Society (Punch, 1880, vol. 78, p. 66), we meet Jellaby Postlethwaite the poet and Maudle the painter, who with Mrs Cimabue Brown, formed the core of the Mutual Admiration Society. Du Maurier clearly had in mind the pre-Raphaelite circle, which represented the artistic avant-garde, namely: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), the painter-poet; his brother William Michael (1829-1919), the art critic; and the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909). During the 1860s, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was also part of the Chelsea set. Members of the clique were mutually supportive, with Swinburne penning a poem as 'an Academy-Catalogue motto' for Whistler's The Little White Girl (1865, Tate Britain). Harry Quilter, art critic of the Spectator and arch-enemy of aestheticism, also blamed partisanship for the ease with which aestheticism infiltrated culture: 'Louder, shriller, and more audacious blow, day by day, the trumpets of mutual advertisement; dictionaries are ransacked for the laudatory or comminatory adjective; the puff preparatory appears for weeks and months before hand [...] No flattery is too fulsome, no exaggeration too absurd to describe the merits of A' (Quilter, 1880: 345-6). By 1877 the aesthetes were prominent in society, as the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery provided the perfect setting for their cultivated art and refined lifestyle: 'The glamour of fashion was over it, and the great help that Lady Lindsay was able to give by holding Sunday receptions there made it one of the most fashionable resorts of the London season' (Gere, 1996: 19). With the cult of 'Art for Art's Sake' before the public, du Maurier could now attack what he perceived to be a false love of art. Moreover, the movement had a new leader: the self-appointed Professor of Aesthetics, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde.


Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis 1954) is a novel in which I sought refuge pretty much annually (for its satirical take on academia) during my years at Acadia (see Joseph Schuster on that fugue), and is the basis for my assignment of 'Eminence' of Amis, whom one reviewer praised as having "an unwaveringly merciless eye for the bogus" and another considered Lucky Jim "remarkable for its relentless skewering of artifice and pretension." The book is widely cited as a gem of 20th century hilarity, but now I see how mean-spirited it was (a mode of humour that I'm trying to cure myself of, without much success...) and see Amis for the annoying wretch he always was.

...a novel in the grand tradition of English satire, in which irritants large and small—rude waiters, manipulative women, cliches, affectation and the price of beer—conspire to create a comic howl of hatred of ear-splitting volume and force...

A clear example of Amis at his most ungenerous:

Margaret is based on Monica Jones (her full name is Margaret Monica Beale Jones), a lecturer who was a long-time friend and sometime lover of Amis' own best friend Philip Larkin. It's a cruel portrait, and I wonder how Larkin felt about it. But the bottom line is that Margaret (more so than her foil Christine Callaghan) is such a well-written character that she takes on a life of her own.


Peter Medawar's 1968 review of The Double Helix is concerned with a different eminent Jim, James Watson of Watson-Crick DNA fame, another famously unpleasant character.

By way of digression, I tripped over this further example of feet-of-clay: Haddock Blows His Top, about the life of the for-sure Eminent Hergé who invented TinTin.

Hergé never really understood how people could expect him to have known that drawing an anti-semitic comic strip for Nazi-controlled newspapers wasn't a good idea. For him that was as unreasonable as expecting him to have known that the Belgian Congo was widely viewed as the heart of colonial darkness rather than a game park staffed by golliwogs. Yet most of the books as they're published now are almost lacquered with innocuousness, and most of the things serious fans like about them—the technical polish, the late-period recursive humour, the loopily elaborate Ruritanian settings—can't interestingly be discussed in relation to Hergé's life.

Other feet-of-clay among the Eminent would surely include Céline and Ezra Pound.


Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch traces the author's long and ever-transforming relationship with the novel and thus with George Eliot. Some memorable bits:

(of herself as an adolescent reader) Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and so signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes ... I inwardly hoped that my dress threw my intelligence into relief. (pg 6)

I admired the little I knew of George Eliot's life: her daunting, self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan prominence... I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it. (pg 6)

George Eliot (well, Mary Ann Evans) at 19:
I feel that my besetting sin is the one of all others most destroying, as it is the fruitful parent of them all, Ambition, a desire insatiable for the esteem of my fellow creatures. This seems the center whence all my actions proceed. (pg. 29)

To Woolf's generation, Eliot's earnestness was an embarrassment... (pg 223)

Eliot was notoriously diffident, and was susceptible to crippling self-doubt. (pg 229)


George Eliot was visited by Mr and Mrs Darwin and Leslie Stephen on Friday, 5 December 1879, and by Mrs Strachey five days later, on Wednesday, 10 Deecember.


Two bits from Eminent Victorians:

The Church of England is a commodious institution; she is very anxious to please; but, somehow or other, she has never managed to supply a happy home to superstitious egotists (pg 58)

The Oxford Movement was now ended. The University breathed such a sigh of relief as usually follows the difficult expulsion of a hard piece of matter from a living organism, and actually began to attend to education (pg 40)

(aperçus on practically every page)

and on Tuesday:

The background question is: how does Eminence come to be? How is it manufactured and nourished and propagated? And the answer takes us into the evolution of media that bring /talent/ to audiences—how it's managed once the talent has been discovered. All sorts of examples occur to me. Think of Elvis, and of his story as told by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

The details of manufactured eminence are different in every case, but essentially: /talent/ is discovered and brought to audiences by available technologies. Think of the Bristol Sessions in 1927, really the beginning of 'Country Music' ... the Carter Family and other Appalachian /talent/ recorded, and the subsequent development of radio in the 20s and 30s... and then of TV "shows" in the 50s. These owe a lot to vaudeville...

Performers (and I'd include authors) are /commodities/ in marketplaces. Astute management is an essential element in their connection to their audiences; without audience they have no means to develop eminence. So publishers and publicity specialists and journalists and promoters and impresarios and flacks all have parts to play. In the world of music there's a whole infrastructure of sound specialists (engineers, A&R men, roadies...). And in the movie world, the largely-unnoticed contribution of Foley artists...

Vaudeville was a transitional entertainment form ("variety entertainment" for Americans, and music halls in Britain) in the 50-odd years between the 1880s and 1930s

By the late 1890s, vaudeville had large circuits, houses (small and large) in almost every sizeable location, standardized booking, broad pools of skilled acts, and a loyal national following... (Wikipedia)
Some movie actors who got their start in vaudeville: Al Jolson, WC Fields, Mae West, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers...

a nice documentary:

and n.b. also the entertainers who got their start in the Borscht Belt in New York's Catskills: Woody Allen, Milton Berle, Shelley Berman, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, George Gobel, Shecky Green, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Katz, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jonathan Winters, Henny Youngman...

and finally on Wednesday:

Today's underlying question: How did Oscar Wilde come to be seen as Eminent? How did it actually happen?

In precis:

Oscar's eminence is rooted in a life-long outrageous self-promotion of image (as an Aesthete) and wit (vast shoals of epigrams and aperçus reported), all abetted by the mass media of his time—the 1880s and 1890s—first at Oxford, and thereafter in London. He had to find or invent some means to make a living to support his extravagant tastes; a slim volume of poems (Poems) was inadequate, and going on the Lecture circuit was the primary venue available to him (tours of the United States, and British tours). Eventually he found his way to the "higher journalism" of critiques and reviews (Pall Mall Gazette, others). Such drollery didn't pay well enough, so he lived beyond his means while writing and speaking of Beauty, Art, and Home Decor. In the late-1880s he began to publish stories ("The Centerville Ghost", "Lord Arthur Saville's Crime") and was hired as Editor of The Woman's World, which gave him entrée into the Literary Establishment. The Happy Prince and Other Tales was a mild success, but The Picture of Dorian Gray created "a phenomenal stir" and led to his acquaintance with Lord Alfred Douglas ('Bosie'), third son of the Marquess of Queensberry and already notoriously transgressive as an Oxford undergraduate. The early 1890s brought a move to the stage and series of theatrical successes for Wilde's plays: Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. It all fell apart in 1895, in the famous trial and conviction, imprisonment, and flight to exile in Paris.

My Kindle Notebook collects noteworthy/memorable passages from the Matthew Sturgis biography.