Travel for Art’s Sake

Oscar Wilde’s American Tour

Oscar Wilde spent a year touring the U.S. and met the likes of Walt Whitman and Henry James. Anthony Paletta on what the writer learned.

There is not a shred of proof that Oscar Wilde quipped, upon entering the United States, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” But, given his record of wit, newspaper publishers seem to have been quite happy to simply print the legend—and who could ever blame them?

It is oddly fitting that the most prominent relic of Wilde’s 1882 tour of the United States is possibly apocryphal, given that the actual substance of the tour seems, short of a few narrowly-missed meetings, the stuff of dime novels and historical fiction. Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, Roy Morris, Jr.’s delightful account of the tour, sets a visitor from one realm (Wilde) careening into one that seems impossibly separate (early Gilded Age America); not merely drinking elderberry wine with Walt Whitman in Camden, or holding chilly conversation with Henry James in Washington, but lecturing in Saint Joseph, Missouri, two weeks after the death of Jesse James, calling on an elderly Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation, and falling prey to a con-man in New York’s Tenderloin (encompassing what is now parts of the Flatiron, Garment and Theatre districts). With a few more fireworks, literal or carnal, you’d be tempted to shelf it in the fiction aisle alongside E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. There are no couplings between, say, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman, but Wilde did later note, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.”

It is little surprise that Wilde, a fad avant la lettre—whose celebrity largely preceded his principal accomplishments—owed his American tour to a satirical skewering of which he was the target. Gilbert and Sullivan had just composed their operetta Patience, an all-purpose mockery of aestheticism whose Reginald Bunthorne was a direct parody of Wilde, with the character spouting sentiments such as: “The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.” Wilde, with no less aplomb than you would imagine, promptly embraced the play. (As Morris reminds us, “the only thing worse than being talked about, he said, was not being talked about.”) Richard D’Oyly Carte, the producer of the show, saw an immediate opportunity to capitalize on the American run, and proposed that Wilde give a lecture tour. Imagine, say, Robert Penn Warren’s publisher arranging a lecture tour for Huey Long, or the Comedy Central Bill O’Reilly tour. Wilde promptly accepted.

Wilde set sail from Liverpool with letters of introduction from James Russell Lowell and Edward Burne-Jones. (Lowell wrote to Oliver Wendell Holmes, “he should need no more introduction than a fine day.”) The passage does not seem to have been a pleasant one. “I am not exactly pleased with the Atlantic,” Wilde declared. A letter subsequently appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, reading: “‘I am disappointed in Mr. Wilde,’ signed ‘The Atlantic Ocean.’” He arrived in New York amidst the trial of Charles Guiteau, recent assassin of President James Garfield, and unwittingly played a hand in a Supreme Court case: he sat for several photos with the eminent photographer Napoleon Sarony, who would later sue a lithographic company for the unwarranted replication of these photos, winning in the case Burrow-Giles Lithographic Co. v. Sarony, which established early copyright protections for photographs.

Wilde, replete in flamboyant attire, launched his first lecture in the city with a message on “the English Renaissance” and art for art’s sake, which seems to have faltered in its prepared elements and shone in its improvisational bits, attracting praise from some quarters (The Cincinnati Enquirer) and dismissal from others (The Nation, grumpy even in the 1880s, observed that Wilde “can hardly succeed in this country”). The New York Times commented on the “aesthetic and pallid young men in dress suits and banged hair” in the rear of the venue—banged-hair an attribution with some whiff of the homosexual demimonde at the time.

Wilde then went off to Philadelphia for a lecture at the Horticultural Hall—he was bored, as so many others along the way were, by the train’s views of New Jersey. He then called on Walt Whitman in Camden, where he drank elderberry wine and milk-punch (“a stoutish mixture of milk and whiskey”), offered praise, and received some admonishment:

When he ventured the starchy observation that he, Wilde, couldn’t bear “to listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style, or by beauty of theme,” the older poet put him in his place. “Why, Oscar,” said Whitman, “it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.” Wilde quickly retreated. “Yes,” he said, “I think so too.”

A meeting with Henry James in Washington went even less smoothly. Wilde claimed to be close friends with Charles Eliot Norton and Edward Burne-Jones, both of whom James knew well, and a string of exceptionally shallow quips rankled James immensely, who wrote to Clover Adams (Henry Adams’ wife), “‘Hosscar’ Wilde is a fatuous fool, a tenth-rate cad, and an unclean beast.” On the subject of Wilde, it seems, James could get to the point very rapidly.

The American press also displayed a predicable range of praise and savagery. A rumor circulated that Wilde had been offered 200 pounds by P.T. Barnum to ride Jumbo the Elephant, clutching his famous adornment of a sunflower. The Washington Post ran a drawing of him “limp-wristedly holding a sunflower below an identically posed missing link, ‘Mr. Wild of Borneo,’ holding a coconut.” Harper’s Weekly ran a similar portrait, “showing an ape in Wilde’s familiar velvet suit, Byronic collar, and dapper cravat moonily contemplating an enormous sunflower in a vase.”

Wilde’s sartorial affectations proved a subject of lampoon beyond words. The first two rows of his lecture at the Boston Music Hall were filled by “a madcap procession of sixty Harvard men who marched down the center aisle in pairs, all carrying sunflowers and wearing Wildean costumes of knee breeches, black stockings, wide-spreading cravats, and shoulder-length wigs.” This time, the joke was on them, as Wilde appeared wearing “long trousers and a conservative coat.” Crowds of the sunflower-clad dogged his lectures in any case.

Wilde ranged all about the country subsequently—west along the Great Lakes and on to California, back through the prairies and into Atlantic Canada, and then to the American South. He scattered mordant criticism but also genuine praise, often about the same things. Wilde declared, of Niagra Falls, “Every American Bride is taken there, and the sight of that tremendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life,” but also that the “majestic splendour and strength of the physical forces of nature” were “far beyond what I had seen in Europe.” On Cincinnati: “I wonder that no criminal has ever pleaded the ugliness of your city as an excuse for his crimes.” He found California “a very Italy without its art,” though later he admired that “nature had exhausted her resources on the West and left nothing for the prairies.”

Wilde called on a sepulchral Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi Plantation. Regrettably, Wilde chose to compare the Southern cause to Irish independence. (Dickens, in his American Notes, drew a better distinction: “What! Shall we declaim against the ignorant peasantry of Ireland, and mince the matter when these American taskmasters are in question?”) Despite this, Davis declared, “I did not like the man.”

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But Wilde’s opinion of the American populace proved surprisingly positive. He marveled repeatedly at their lack of prejudice and spirit of enterprise, winning traits to a self-made 27-year-old from Dublin who declared on the tour: “Well, I’m a very ambitious young man. I want to do everything in the world. I cannot conceive of anything that I do not want to do.” For an effete visitor, he repeatedly enjoyed encounters with rough-hewn characters, enjoying sporting with defiantly un-aesthetic American types like miners at the Leadville Mine in Colorado (“big-booted, yellow-bearded and delightful ruffians” who were featured in the opening of the 1997 film Wilde).

A certain American frankness may have worn off on Wilde. When he returned to London, he cut his hair and packed away his “stage costume of knee breeches, black silk stockings, satin smoking jacket, and Byronic peasant shirt.” He declared to a friend: “The Oscar of the first period is dead.” Wilde deplored American commercialism and vulgarity, but he admired American simplicity and decency. In The Canterville Ghost, American know-how wins the day. And Hester Worsely, from A Woman of No Importance, delivers one of the most acid critiques of English society, in response to questions about American backwardness:

We are trying to build up life, Lady Hunstanton, on a better, truer, purer basis than life rests on here. This sounds strange to you all, no doubt. How could it sound other than strange? You rich people in England, you don’t know how you are living. How could you know? You shut out from your society the gentle and the good. You laugh at the simple and the pure. Living, as you all do, on others and by them, you sneer at self-sacrifice, and if you throw bread to the poor, it is merely to keep them quiet for a season. With all your pomp and wealth and art you don’t know how to live—you don’t even know that. You love the beauty that you can see and touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy, and do destroy, but of the unseen beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life’s secret …

After a tour of 15,000 miles over 140 cities and towns, one of the most eloquent observers of the world was naturally taken by the American Dream.