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In January 1882, Oscar Wilde arrived in New York to begin a nationwide publicity tour. Mentioned in a few newspaper articles -- but barely a footnote in the history books -- was the black valet who accompanied him. In a daring and richly imaginative work, Louis Edwards rescues this figure from obscurity, blurring the line between fact and fiction as he follows Wilde and his gifted confidant, Traquair, on a whirlwind tour across the country, from high-society Newport to art-conscious San Francisco to the Deep South.
Edwards's brilliantly conjured Wilde astounds the New World with his eloquent lectures and larger-than-life presence, while Traquair delights in the greatest year of his youth: losing his virginity in a Washington, D. C., brothel; meeting Jefferson Davis in Mississippi; falling hopelessly in love in St. Louis; and learning about his own family's secret history. Juxtaposed with Traquair's experiences are those of his Caucasian best friend, Baxter, who travels to England and becomes enmeshed in a circle of luminaries including Lady Wilde, James Whistler, Lillie Langtry, and Wilde's future wife, Constance Lloyd.
Combining seductive, epigrammatic language and a unique perspective on class and race in late-nineteenth-century America, Oscar Wilde Discovers America builds to a surprising climax that offers a chilling forecast of the tragic destiny of Wilde and a stunning redefinition of the American spirit.
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Louis Edwards, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Whiting Writers' Award, grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He is the author of two previous novels, Ten Seconds and N, and lives in New Orleans.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: New York
Blood, coursing through William with a curious heat, burned his cheeks. Baxter was going to Europe tomorrow, and he was not. Just as, four years earlier, Baxter had gone to Harvard, and he had not. William brought his hands up to his face and felt the warmth of his envy pulsing there. Such emotion would have ruddied the face of a fairer man -- Baxter would have been blushing -- exposing his fury, but William, sitting across from his observant, judgmental father, enjoyed the refuge of his brown mask. Had William's gloom a glow and had Henry Traquair detected the source of his son's malaise, he would have, no doubt, lectured William about the perils of self-pity. His father, with the lone exception of pride, had never displayed, at least in William's presence, any interest in matters of the self at all. Perhaps this trait, William allowed, was an acquired one, the result of Mr. Traquair's life's work as a servant attending to the needs of others, a hazard of the job, as it were, like a coal miner's cough or a cotton picker's crouch.
For as long as William could remember, his father, who was now stylishly interrupting his own chatter (what was he talking about anyway -- a Mr. Vail -- who was this Vail and why should William care about him?) with perfectly timed double puffs of his cigarette, had been the senior servant in the household of Mr. Charles Gable, owner of a small but very profitable bank in New York City. Mr. Gable was a widower; William had no recollection of Mrs. Gable, though his own mother, Gloria, who was the only other full-time worker in the Gable household, occasionally spoke of her. A large portrait of Mrs. Gable hung in the grand entrance to the home, a three-story townhouse at 141 East Nineteenth Street in Gramercy Park -- the only home William had ever known. Baxter, who was just a few months younger than William, was the Gables' only child. As boys growing up together in the same household, Baxter and William had been inseparable, sharing meals, mischief, punishment, and private tutors, who had taken them from simple addition through the mysteries of pi and beyond, from the English alphabet to Latin grammar, from the Greeks to Milton. They had found Hawthorne, Poe, and other more recent authors on their own; the tutors had evidently had a low opinion of American literature. William and Baxter had remained close even when they had gone away to separate colleges, Baxter, as expected, to Harvard, William to Bowdoin. (Mr. Gable had arranged William's matriculation to the Maine school, after having had no success in convincing his connections in Cambridge to accept William's application.) William still had the first of many letters Baxter had sent to him during their years of separation:
14 September 1877
You wouldn't like it here. It seems no one believes in Plato at the moment. But I hear next semester that could change. Do classroom desks bother you as much as they do me? We students seem rather like sitting ducks -- and, oh, how the professors do take aim.
Terribly, shamefully happy,
William had written back a letter of equal brevity and with just as delicate an admission of betrayal, because he, too, had settled in for four years of ecstasy. Yes, the initial disappointment at having been denied Massachusetts had been swept away early in his freshman year when a rolling wave had splashed him as he had stood on the rocky Maine coastline near Brunswick. The splatter of leaping and diving droplets had anticipated or possibly even precipitated his tears for the aggressive beauty of the great sea that had jumped up with such impetuosity to kiss the face of his youth. What a kiss! He could have retreated from the shore in time to save himself from a second dousing, but he had let the tide wash over him once more. Standing there in the arms of the Atlantic, he felt he had just learned what he might, in the future, expect of love -- surprise and swiftness...and love of him -- surrender. And college had been as breezy and romantic as that late summer day. But now those four years were done, and William had no idea where to turn for a pleasure that would match the stimulation, the intellectual and visceral orgy, that was academia and its environs.
Baxter had an easy answer: he was off to England, then France, Italy, Spain, and Germany -- a yearlong adventure across the Continent. But William was expected to move to the South and become a teacher or to stay at home and become his father. He didn't feel inclined to do either, not because he feared failure, but because he dreaded success. They were such easy options. He knew he could manage either of them with little effort. He felt he had a certain aptitude for teaching. As a college senior he had assisted one of the best professors on campus with his survey course of American History. Logic told him he would become a teacher soon enough. But not yet. Not now. He needed a challenge. When he had left Bowdoin to come back to New York City, he had felt the classic depression of the recent undergraduate. The battle with adolescence essentially won, the confident, dangerously armed adult seeks a real war. When none is declared, a civil war as inevitable and debilitating as any other (was it the head versus the heart?) substitutes. Baxter had his war; he was off to conquer Europe. But what about me? William had moped, sighing like Sumter. Where is my continent?
And now, weary for the moment from the frustration that came of contemplating his predicament, William attempted to focus on the blurry image of his father in the small room at the back of the house that Mr. Traquair had long ago appropriated as his office and study. If his father refused to acknowledge the complexity of himself, William vowed he would try to see the man whole. Through a droopy-eyed gaze, across the smoke-filled room, he saw his father -- puff, puff -- sitting comfortably in his burgundy-colored leather chair behind his grand polished oak desk. William knew this pose photographically, could have painted it from memory had he the skill. But it struck him that he actually knew very little about his father. He knew the man's habits and his disposition. But who was he, really? A handsome fifty-year-old butler who had made a career out of studying, learning, and attending to his employer's needs? Was he simply that? Of course not. But their countless, seemingly intimate conversations over the years had always resulted in William telling all and his father telling nothing. Lately he had begun to sense an annoying calculation in the way his father deftly guided their discussions away from himself. A father-boy relationship might have warranted such manipulation, William allowed, but a father and a young man, his son, must play by different rules. Yet even this understanding -- that he and his father would soon essentially be equals -- fresh as it was, had much more to say about William than about Mr. Traquair, so successful had his father been in maintaining the mystery of his being.
Prompted by a volume of poems positioned prominently on Mr. Traquair's desk, William remembered something of substance that he knew about his father: his favorite poet was Phillis Wheatley, the brilliant slave girl. William found his father's affection for Miss Wheatley displeasing -- Phillis Wheatley: a poet held captive. The hopelessness of her circumstances both sickened and bored him, but apparently her situation and her achievement impressed his father. In the bitter tone of his dark state, William thought that Mr. Traquair adored Phillis Wheatley the way the oppressed always love their struggle and the symbols of it, with passion. But the idea of an enslaved poet, an imprisoned artistic soul, plunged William even farther downward, and he sank, as if through a trapdoor, to his depression's new, unsuspected bottom. Poets should be free!
"I said, 'William, why aren't you listening to what I'm saying?' That's what I just said to you," Mr. Traquair said.
William wondered, Did I just ask him what he had said to me? "I am listening, Father," he said, improving his posture. "Yes, now you have my attention."
"Do I need to begin again? Has even the gist of my words penetrated the mist of your meditation?" Mr. Traquair sounded more stern than usual. He was not a forceful man, merely a rigid one. William had always found the bass in his voice disconcerting, too strong for the delicately composed words he spoke through white teeth and perfectly shaped lips. The large size of his head, a bolder version of William's, also hinted at an aggression that William knew was not in his father's nature. In less melancholy moments, William had noted how his father's silver and black matted crown rested gently upon his head, accenting a regality that defied his station.
"Something about a Mr. Vail." William feigned interest.
"Right, right. Well, as I was saying, he came for a visit yesterday. Gable has known him since he was a child, possibly some relationship by marriage, though I remembered nothing of the young man when I met him. At any rate, I walked into the library to serve the brandy, and as I did, Gable says, 'Fine timing, Henry, right on cue.' And, of course, I'm thinking, Why should my timing not be fine after more than twenty years! I know how and when he likes his brandy served, what does he mean, my timing, why, I'm a veritable -- why, were I a timepiece, my brand would be Gable. He must have sensed some confusion on my face and, I must say, he recovered nicely. 'We need your advice,' he said. A nice phrase to hear, my boy. 'We need your advice.' Listen for it in your lifetime, and try to be ready to answer its call. Not that I, mind you, held any conceit that I could truly be of much help to the gentlemen, but I stood ready to try. 'Mr. Vail,' he said, 'is in a bit of a fix. He's got a distinguished Englishman due to dock in New York harbor the day after New Year's, and the valet he had rounded up to attend to the man has mysteriously disappeared.'
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