March 15, 2013 2:08:16 PM
Even before his great success as a playwright and before his great scandal as a homosexual, Oscar Wilde had been someone to pay attention to, whether you learned from him or laughed at him. He was so well known in England even before his plays that Gilbert and Sullivan could lampoon him and the Aesthetic Movement in their operetta Patience. Americans had read about Oscar Wilde, but would they get the satire in the operetta that was to come their way in 1881? Wilde had embraced Patience, even though he was its target, and the canny producer Richard D'Oyly Carte saw a great opportunity for publicity: send Wilde to America on a speaking tour. Wilde was happy to take on the adventure of bringing aestheticism to the Yankees, and although the tour didn't change America, it was a step to boost Wilde's self confidence and status. In Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America (Belknap Press / Harvard), Roy Morris, Jr., a historian who specializes in nineteenth-century American history, tells the strange and funny story of the tour and what the Americans made of Wilde and vice versa. Anyone who has laughed at Wilde's comedies will find much to laugh at here; there are Wilde's witticisms throughout, but also misunderstandings, backlash from the press, protests, and boisterous adoration from his fans. Wilde didn't enjoy every day of his tour, but most of it he did, and it was a rollicking success. He also liked America very much.
Wilde set sail from Liverpool in December 1881. One of his famous remarks about the crossing started circulating when he disembarked in New York, for he had supposedly told a shipmate that he was "not exactly pleased with the Atlantic. It is not so majestic as I expected. The sea seems tame to me. The roaring ocean does not roar." This nicely set up headlines for the start of his tour: "Mr. Wilde Disappointed with Atlantic." The other famous remark upon his entry is one from which the book gets its title, but for which there is little authentication (as is the case for many of the things Wilde is supposed to have said). Asked by customs if he had anything to declare, he quipped, "I have nothing to declare except my genius." It isn't surprising that the newspapers enjoyed printing such quotes even if they were not quotes at all.
Wilde arrived into a bustling nation with plenty else on its mind, and Morris fills us in on the national interests of the duration of his visit. Charles Guiteau was being tried and was hung for the assassination of President James Garfield. Jesse James was shot. Jumbo the elephant was imported from England by P. T. Barnum. When Wilde stayed at the Palace in San Francisco, he took advantage of a new innovation, the "lifting room;" it's what they called an elevator. At the governor's mansion in Indiana he sampled the new American craze, ice cream. Through it all, a visit by Wilde to a town large or small was big news, even if the newspapers were not complimentary. (He would not have minded, reminding us that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.) In Kansas City, a newspaper sniffed: "Oscar Wilde, the long-haired what-is-it, has finally reached Kansas City, and the aesthetic noodles and blue china nincompoops are in the seventh heaven of happiness." In Houston, his presentation was interrupted by misbehavior in the galleries and the ringing of a gong in the saloon below, and the newspaper chided its citizens for "belittling a man whose ideas of art were sound and much needed in a young community, and who was himself very different from the foolish popular idea of an aesthetic Quixote charging upon American realism with a sunflower." In St. Joseph, the newspaper predicted, "There will be a big crowd at the opera house tonight, not to hear the lecture, but to see the little fool who has cheek enough to run around among women with breeches coming down only to his knees."
Wilde's clothes were the topic of many reporters. He was not a handsome man, but he did like to dress colorfully. Knee breeches with silk stockings were part of the effect, as was a green fur-trimmed overcoat, a purple suit of velvet, and patent leather shoes with sparkling buckles. It was easy to mock the outfit, and countless jokers did so. Before his lecture at the Boston Music Hall, reserved seats in the front rows were filled by a procession of sixty Harvard boys, "all carrying sunflowers and wearing Wildean costumes of knee breeches, black stockings, wide-spreading cravats, and shoulder-length wigs." Wilde had been tipped off, however; after the Harvard crew was all seated, and had amused the others in the audience, Wilde himself went on stage, wearing long trousers and a conservative coat, and of course bearing no sunflower. He gave greetings to the crowd, and then pretended first to notice the mockers. "I see about me certain signs of an Aesthetic Movement," he said with a smile. "I see young men who are no doubt sincere, but I can assure them that they are no more than caricatures. As I look around me, I am impelled for the first time to breathe a fervent prayer, 'Save me from my disciples.'" With good humor, and compliments to the Harvard he had toured earlier in the afternoon, he won the students over.
Not all the lectures went so well, but usually they were accepted with amused toleration. Wilde, who seems to have been no orator, gave his audiences his thoughts on the English Renaissance (Aesthetic, to be sure), the decorative arts, and his recommendations for home decoration. He would give advice such as to avoid paintings on one's china: "I do not see the wisdom of decorating dinner plates with sunsets and soup plates with moonlight scenes. We do not want a soup plate whose bottom seems to vanish in the distance. One feels neither safe nor comfortable under such conditions."
Wilde bore letters of introduction to many famous people, although when James Russell Lowell wrote one to Oliver Wendell Holmes, he said gracefully that Wilde "should need no more introduction than a fine day.") During his tour he had a frosty conversation with Henry James, but he drank Elderberry wine with Walt Whitman, whom he greatly admired and who said after the visit that he had found Wilde a "great big, splendid boy, frank, outspoken, and manly." He did not meet Ambrose Bierce, and that is just as well; Bierce could have matched witticisms and retorts with Wilde, but didn't like him, writing, "That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde, has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and penury of sense." We don't know what they talked about when he was introduced to Ulysses S. Grant, but Wilde also tried to ingratiate himself to Jefferson Davis, who said later, "I did not like the man." Perhaps the most colorful part of his tour was not to anyone important, but to the miners in Leadville, Colorado. A mine owner asked if he would like to go into the mine, and Wilde replied, "I shall be delighted. Of all things that which I most desire to see is a mine." The miners at the bottom of their pit were happy to receive him at supper, of which Wilde said, "the first course being whiskey, the second whiskey, and the third whiskey." They handed him a drill and invited him to open a new vein of ore: "I brilliantly performed, amidst universal applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named 'The Oscar.' I had hoped they would have offered me shares in 'The Oscar,' but in their artless untutored fashion they did not."
Wilde's tour, with all its ups and downs, was a success in all ways. It made him better known and brought him money, and he traveled 15,000 miles all over the US and Canada. Morris says he did America good: "As both a lecturer and a celebrity, he had made an indelible impression wherever he went, alternately shocking, amusing, entertaining, and enlightening thousands of post-Civil-War-era Americans at a time when they were sorely in need of each." America did Wilde good, treating him with amusement and hospitality; he wrote, "It is well worth one's while to go to a country which can teach us the beauty of the word freedom and the value of the thing liberty." Morris also says that with the waning of the Aesthetic Movement, Wilde had been fortified by his travels and was better able to look inward rather than outward for accomplishments. It is perhaps too much a stretch to say that his American tour was a foundation for, say, The Importance of Being Earnest, but there was a sense of fun in the tour that Wilde cherished, and which Morris brings forth in a delightful book.