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Oscar Wilde | Biography

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Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland, Oscar Wilde lived a life that was in many ways as colorful and dramatic as those of the characters he invented. He came from an established and well-respected family in which his mother was an accomplished poet and translator, and his father was a doctor who was knighted for his service in the Irish census. An uncle also served in the Irish Parliament.

Wilde received a first-rate education, attending Portora Royal School, Trinity College Dublin and then Oxford. He won honors at each institution, first for his scholarship and then for his writing. After graduating Wilde began a varied literary career that was at first very successful and then highly notorious. Wilde published poetry, criticism, fiction (including fairy tales), and plays. While some of his poetry and fairy tales are still read, it was his work in the other three genres that won him literary immortality. Essays such as "The Decay of Lying" (1889) and "The Critic as Artist" (1891) make their cases through conversations among paired selves representing different components of an argument, a structure Wilde followed both in his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and in his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

On August 30, 1889, J.M. Stoddard, managing editor of the American magazine Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, hosted a dinner in London. That evening he solicited stories from two very different authors: Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle—the writer who created Sherlock Holmes. That request produced The Sign of Four (1890) from Doyle and The Picture of Dorian Gray from Wilde. Although Doyle's story was immediately celebrated, Wilde's story received a much more negative response, even from Stoddard himself, who cut 500 words from the manuscript before he published it in one installment in 1890, having edited the story to make the references to homosexuality less explicit. However, that wasn't enough to save Wilde from controversy. Critics objected to the story, suggesting it was written specifically for a homosexual audience. In response Wilde edited the story still further, adding six chapters and a preface and toning down the sexual content before it was published as a book in 1891 by Ward, Lock and Co.

Even with Wilde's edits, the controversy generated by the novel caused problems for the author at the time his career had begun to blossom. In 1895 during the run of his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, at St. James's Theater in London, Wilde got into legal trouble over a homosexual affair with a younger man, Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas, incidentally, adored The Picture of Dorian Gray, and said he read it 14 times. Wilde was charged with "gross indecency," and the novel was part of the evidence used against Wilde at this trial. Wilde spent two years in prison starting in 1895, and when he emerged, he lived barely five more years. During the autumn of 1900, he lived in Paris at the Hôtel d'Alsace under the name Sebastian Melmoth. On November 30, 1900, at age 46, Wilde died there without enough money to pay his hotel bill.

For more than a century, readers were able to experience The Picture of Dorian Gray only in the watered-down versions published in 1890 and 1891. This changed in 2011, when scholar Nicholas Frankel published a version of the novel with the original sexual references restored.

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