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Exhibition curated by UD scholars showcases newly discovered works

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 before.”

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. 

S

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. 

More about the exhibition

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 the Rosenbach.

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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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A new exhibition, co-curated by two scholars at UD, explores Oscar Wilde’s connections to Philadelphia, while showcasing three newly discovered works.

A new exhibition in Philadelphia, co-curated by two scholars at UD, explores Oscar Wilde's connections to the city, while showcasing three newly discovered works by the 19th-century Irish writer.

2/24/2015
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