Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, December 24, 2010

Today in Literary History - Oscar Wilde Departs for America


On December 24, 1881, Oscar Wilde left England for America and a year-long lecture tour on topics such as “The House Beautiful” and “The Decorative Arts.” It’s not certain whether or not Wilde did tell his fellow passengers that “the roaring ocean does not roar,” or that he told a customs agent, “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” but we do know that the captain of the ship said he regretted not having Wilde “lashed to the bowsprit on the windward side.”

In the US, thousands turned out to see and hear Wilde and so many took to heart his mission “to make this artistic movement the basis for a new civilization” that craft societies and museum patronage blossomed, both during and after his visit.

Wilde, himself wrote home that he was a bigger hit than Dickens by far, and said the personal adulation heaped upon him required his hiring of not one, but three, secretaries. “One writes my autographs all day for my admirers, the other receives the flowers that are left really every ten minutes. A third whose hair resembles mine is obliged to send off locks of his own hair to the myriad maidens of the city, and so is rapidly becoming bald.”

But not all was adulation. Wilde was the target of much mocking during his US tour, some of it good-natured, some of it not. A few mocked his poetry, though most zeroed in on his appearance, in particular his “great ungainly crane” of a body, his purple Hungarian smoking jacket, with matching turban, knee breeches and black silk stockings, his coat lined with lavender satin, and everything laced and caped and topped with a sky blue cravat. One Chicago clothing store even went so far as to use his photo, dubbed a photo of the “Ass-thete” to promote their more masculine line.

The mocking sometimes had Wilde a bit “out of sorts,” but he was never outmatched, and he was usually up for any adventure, especially a game of wit.

As incomprehensible as it seems, the “prissy” Wilde gave a talk in a mining town called Leadville in the Rockies. “I spoke to them of the early Florentines,” he said, “and they slept as though no crime had ever stained the ravines of their mountain home.” After the talk, Wilde agreed to descend to the bottom of a silver mine in a bucket saying, “I, of course, true to my principle, being graceful even in a bucket.” And the townspeople cheered him on when he dined, drank whiskey, and smoked a cigar. What happened next is best described in Wilde’s own words:

Then I had to open a new vein, or lode, which with a silver drill I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named “The Oscar.” I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in “The Oscar,” but in their artless untutored fashion they did not. Only the silver drill remains as a memory of my night at Leadville.

That night, Wilde spent time in the local bar and took particular note of a sign that read: “Please do not shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.”

Back in England, Wilde toured again, giving his “Impressions of America,” and he recalled his night in Leadville with obvious delight. “I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death,” he said, “and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.”

Oscar Wilde really was “one of a kind.”

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