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Book Report: This witty wonder may be for you

This witty wonder may be for you

My literary almanac tells me that on this day in 1854, Oscar O’Flahertie Fingal Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland.

Wilde, once the toast of venues as varied as London, England and Deadwood, S.D. for his great wit, his plays both comic and tragic died in 1901 banished from polite society for his affair with a young playboy, Lord Alfred Douglas, dealt with in a review here recently on the subject.

But it’s his birthday, so let’s celebrate it for him by paying tribute to all the chuckles his legend has given us over the years. 

Much of the legend never saw paper and was only recalled by people who heard him talk, sort of like Dr. Samuel Johnson, only much, much funnier.

One of my favorite anecdotes found him at a dinner party where he had been so amusing that when dessert was finished the ladies at the table forgot to excuse themselves so the men could smoke their cigars.

As the evening passed and Wilde continued to hold forth, an oil lamp’s chimney began to cloud up. A servant shouted “The lamp is smoking!”

Wilde’s rejoinder? “Lucky lamp.”

Many of his witticisms, of course, are found in his writings.

If you’re like me, the kind of person who is habitually one upped and go to bed every night thinking, “When he said this, I should have said that…” You’ll probably read these and weep.

In “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a character remarks:

“There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about.” And: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

When Wilde toured the western United States clad in purple capes and carrying a single lily, the roughhewn miners and ranch hands flocked to hear him. And he appreciated them, too.

He recalled on his return to London the sign above a piano on stage at a Deadwood saloon:

“Please do not shoot the piano player. He is doing his best.”

Wilde’s dramas like “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan” are loaded with memorable witticisms:

In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.”

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

“I suppose is wonderfully delightful. To be in it is merely a bore. But to be out of it is simply a tragedy.”

“Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained 35 for years.”

“The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for 300 years.”

“Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live nor the smallest instinct about when to die.”

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

”If the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”

And along those same lines:

If “drink is the curse of the working class, then work is the curse of the drinking class.”

If you like this stuff, read “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit,” by Hesketh Pearson. I did many years ago. It didn’t improve my gift for repartee, but I certainly enjoyed reading it.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.