Our Aesthetic Visitor: Why Oscar Wilde Came to America
Marilyn Bisch, President, OWSOA
Wilde visited North America only twice, in 1882 and 1883. His
second trip, devoted to the production of his first play, was short and
spent mostly in New York, but his 1882 visit lasted nearly the entire year.
He arrived in
New York harbor aboard the S. S. Arizona on 2 January and departed
for England on the S. S. Bothnia on 27 December. In the intervening
months Wilde criss-crossed the continent, presenting well over 100 lectures
primarily on issues related to the arts, fashion, and house decoration.
His tour was
arranged and managed by the Carte Bureau in New York, an enterprise of
London theater owner and producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, best known for his
association with Gilbert and Sullivan. Following the success of the comic
operettas H.M.S. Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, the pair
composed Patience, a satire of the Aesthetic Movement in England with
which Wilde was widely associated.
premiered in London on 23 April 1881 and in New York on 22 September of the
same year. D’Oyly Carte, recognizing the profitability of using Wilde to
promote Patience, and Patience to promote Wilde, engaged the
satirized aesthete to lecture on 9 January 1882 in New York. The success of
this initial venture led to the year-long tour which took Wilde from the
Atlantic coast to the Pacific, and from the Gulf of Mexico into Canada.
It is important
to note that the Oscar Wilde who came to America was not the Oscar Wilde he
would become. In 1882 he was eight years away from writing The Picture of
Dorian Gray and it would be 1895 before The Importance of Being
Earnest solidified his success as a playwright—success cut short by his
infamous arrest. As 1882 began, the 27-year-old Oscar Wilde was spending as
much time building a name for himself as he was in producing work that would
ensure its remembrance.
This is not to
contend, however, that the young Wilde was merely an idle dandy. True, he
had for several years devoted himself to being seen everywhere in
London. He attended all the best theatrical and artistic events, shared his
generous wit at fashionable dinners and teas; but his determination to make
his name well-known had, I think, a surprisingly practical purpose: Oscar
Wilde was a young man in search of a profession.
distinguished himself academically, particularly as a student of Greek and
Latin, first in his hometown, at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874,
and then at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied from 1874 to 1878.
years Wilde took great interest in not only classics, but also literary
criticism, philosophy, religion, and art. At Oxford he went in for drama,
wrote and published poetry, and entertained friends in his carefully
decorated rooms amid a collection of increasingly famous blue and white
for scholarship, the arts, and entertaining came naturally. His father, Sir
William, was reputedly the most expert eye and ear surgeon of his day and
was knighted for his services as Surgeon Oculist to the Queen in Ireland in
1864. Sir William was also an archeologist and antiquarian and the author of
thirteen books, including volumes on Irish folklore and history.
Jane, Lady Wilde, was an ardent Irish nationalist. In her youth she
published fiery, revolutionary poems under the pen name Speranza. In
married life she entertained professionals, politicians, and poets in her
salon in the family’s Dublin home. Both of Wilde’s parents were great
talkers and both were considered rather eccentric.
eccentric were the scholars who influenced Wilde’s studies. At Trinity his
mentor was the Rev. John Pentland Mahaffy, an eminent classicist with whom
Wilde toured Italy in 1875 and Greece in 1877. At Oxford Wilde studied with
equally independent-minded teachers. He was profoundly influenced by the
aesthetic and socialistic ideas of John Ruskin and by theories on the
importance of pure beauty expressed by Walter Pater.
achievement of his years at Oxford came in 1878 when Wilde won the Newdigate
Prize for Poetry. The subject of the poem, Ravenna, Italy, was selected by
Oxford authorities. As luck would have it Wilde had visited Ravenna with
Mahaffy in 1877.
By the time of
his graduation from Oxford—with the highest possible marks in classics—Wilde
had begun to write and publish critical essays as well as poems; the
achievement of the Newdigate Prize bolstered his credentials, but making a
living from these pursuits was difficult.
About this time
Wilde made the often-quoted and seemingly prophetic statement about his
ambitions: “God knows, I won’t be an Oxford don anyhow. I’ll be a poet, a
writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous,
I’ll be notorious.”
sentiment, Wilde seems to have had a real interest in obtaining a teaching
position. (see The Complete Letters Of Oscar Wilde, Merlin Holland
and Rupert Hart-Davis, editors, 2000. pp. 77-78). Job openings for classics’
scholars, however, were few even then. By 1879 Wilde was spending most of
his time in London, where his prospects as a writer were brighter.
In 1880 he
wrote his first play, Vera; or, The Nihilists, a drama of a young
Russian girl who conspires to assassinate the newly-crowned Czar.
Discovering that the young Czar is also a nihilist, Vera falls in love with
her intended victim and commits suicide to save his life. Wilde wasted
little time in using his charm and his theatrical connections in hopes of
securing a producer for his first play.
By now, the
intelligent and charming young Wilde was developing an ever-widening circle
of friends among the actors, artists, writers, and society scions of London.
Some of the best known were the artist, James McNeill Whistler; the great
professional beauty, Lillie Langtry; and her ardent admirer, the Prince of
Wales, later King Edward VII.
writing, his associations and, even more, his conversation, Wilde was
becoming increasingly recognized as a leader of the Aesthetic Movement,
which was never so much an organized “school” of art as it was an attitude
toward the necessity of beauty in life.
aestheticism had many “sources,” but for Wilde especially it was connected
to the philosophy of “art for art’s sake” espoused by Walter Pater in the
“Conclusion” of his 1873 Studies in the History of the Renaissance.
The Epicurean “Conclusion,” urging young men continually to seek out new
sensations and “to burn always with this hard gem-like flame,” caused such a
public furor and so many charges of promoting hedonism that Pater removed it
from the 1877 edition of his book.
charges were also laid against Wilde and other “aesthetes.” More often,
however, the vaguely-pagan, languid “apostles of art” were ridiculed—in
their call for a return to “artistic” dress (including knee-breeches and
silk stockings for men), their preference for subdued colors, and their
championing of the rose, sunflower, and lily—for just being silly.
entitled “Nincompoopiana–The Mutual Admiration Society” appeared in the 4
February 1880 issue of the London humor magazine Punch. The drawing
by George Du Maurier and caption by Punch editor F. C. Burnand poked
fun at the fictitious Maudle, “the great painter;” Jellaby Postlethwaite,
“the great poet, you know, who sat for Maudle’s ‘Dead Narcissus;’” and Mrs.
Cinabue Brown, aesthetic hostess of the salon where Maudle and
Postlethwaite preached the gospel of the new art.
generally assumed that Whistler, Wilde, and Mrs. Joseph Comyns Carr, wife of
the director of the Grosvenor Gallery where Whistler displayed many
paintings, had provided models for the jest. The series of cartoons
continued for several years. In time, the physical resemblance between
Jellaby Postlethwaite and Wilde became pronounced.
Not only in
cartoons did Punch delight in mocking Aestheticism, and especially
Wilde. There were various “news” quips, and quite a few satirical verses
attributed to “Oscoro Wildegoose” or “The Wild-Eyed Poet.”
It is fair to
note that the satirical weekly targeted just about everything and everybody
of popular interest in its columns. Punch seemed to take a particular
delight in gibing D’Oyly Carte over the name of the theater he built in
1881, insistently referring to it not as The Savoy, but as The Saveloy,
which, as far as I can tell, means, “The highly seasoned smoked pork
It wasn’t long
before satires of Aestheticism started showing up on London stages. The
Colonel, by Punch editor Burnand, opened on 2 February 1881 and
featured a cast of characters including Basil Giorgione, the Knight of the
Lily, and Lambert Streyke, a swindler who bilked his aesthetic followers by
selling them volumes of his bad poetry.
On 23 April,
D’Oyly Carte opened Patience. The character of Reginald Bunthorne, a
Fleshly Poet who wore knee-breeches and carried a sunflower, was widely
associated with Wilde.
The success of
these theatrical spoofs was aided by the June publication of Wilde’s first
volume of poems. Unfortunately, the success of the plays also influenced the
reception of Poems, which Wilde described as “a very tornado of lies
and evil-speaking” (Complete Letters 114).
titled its review “Swinburne and Water,” and, first having compared Wilde to
Lambert Streyke, continued:
The cover is
consummate, the paper is distinctly precious, the binding is beautiful, and
the type is utterly too. Poems by Oscar Wilde, that is the title of
the book by the aesthetic singer, which comes to us arrayed in white vellum
and gold. There is a certain amount of originality about the binding, but
that is more than can be said for the inside of the volume.
In addition to
the charge that he had produced a highly derivative “volume of echoes,” some
of Wilde’s poems were attacked as base and immoral, in particular “Charmides,”
which, in graphic but lyrical terms, tells the story of a young Greek lad
who falls in love with a statue of Athena.
Worse than any
stinging review was the reaction that came from his old school. Following
the customary request from the librarian, Wilde sent an inscribed copy of
Poems to the Oxford Union Society. He was understandably hurt when the
same society voted on 3 November 1881 to reject his presentation copy.
Wilde was becoming less good‑natured and more personal, yet he was
undaunted. And this first major work was not entirely unsuccessful. With
Wilde covering all the expenses, five editions of Poems, of 250
copies each, were printed in London within a year.
The volume was
also published in the United States, where it was appreciated by some but
met the same generally negative critical reaction. More importantly perhaps,
the satires of Patience, Punch, and its American counterpart Puck,
generated an increasing interest among Americans, aesthetic or not, to
know more about poet himself and his ideas.
was too savvy a business man not to see the potential in “bringing over”
Wilde to America. Public lectures were a highly popular form of
entertainment of the day. The Carte Bureau was one of many central booking
agencies that profited from arranging lectures in cities across the country.
stood to make money not only on Wilde’s appearances, but also on his
productions of Patience. In the 1880s the laws governing copyright of
operettas such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s were almost entirely ineffective.
D’Oyly Carte’s only real defense against losing profits to copy-cat
productions was to produce and promote authorized versions of Patience
in America. If Wilde were a success on the lecture platform he would serve
as an excellent “advance poster” for D’Oyly Carte’s official Patience.
Even as a rumor
Wilde’s American tour smacked so much of a mere publicity scheme that the
press was quick to comment. In “A Sort of ‘Sortes,’” a 12 November 1881
article based very loosely around a quotation from Byron, Punch made
the popular view manifestly clear.
the question from Byron, “Say, why should Oscar be forgot,” Punch
added another: “Will the Saveloy Manager ‘exploit’ him in America as a
splendid advertisement for Patience?” D’Oyly Carte’s motives I think
were primarily mercenary. That Wilde agreed to lecture solely for the money
I quite agree with Vyvyan Holland is “manifestly untrue” (Oscar Wilde
This is not to
say that profit was not a factor in his decision to accept D’Oyly Carte’s
offer. In 1877 Wilde confessed to an Oxford friend that his two great gods
were, “Money and Ambition” (Complete Letters 39). His life in London,
where he supported himself largely as a free-lance journalist, had shown
that he had an abundance of the latter, but never quite enough of the
For some time
he had hoped Vera would improve his finances. In October 1880 he
wrote to a sympathetic friend, the actor Norman Forbes-Robertson, “I have
not yet finished furnishing my room, and have spent all my money over it
already, so if no manager gives me gold for The Nihilists I don’t
know what I shall do” (Complete Letters 99).
here seems genuine, yet he goes on to admit how he had spent all his
money, “I couldn’t really have anything but Chippendale and satinwood. I
shouldn’t have been able to write.” He wasn’t exactly thrifty with the
income he had.
In 1881 he at
last succeeded in finding a producer for his first play—his friend Dion
Boucicault. Vera was set to open in London on 17 December, with Mrs.
Bernard Beere in the title role, but did not. Wilde’s fictitious nihilist
had saved his fictitious Czar, but the real Czar Alexander II, whose wife
was sister-in-law to the Prince of Wales, was assassinated by very real
nihilists in March.
a new market for Vera, as well as for his other writings. Wilde had
developed a commendable grasp of marketing and understood the value of
personal contact with publishers, other artists, and the public.
What’s more, as
I am certain Wilde realized, lecturing itself might prove to be a new way to
make a living. If he was successful, which he was, and enjoyed it, which he
did, he might continue to lecture in Britain, which he also did. Given the
hostile reaction to his Poems in England, he was probably wise first
to practice his lecturing in a foreign land.
ambitions to earn money and establish himself in a profession were certainly
factors in his decision to come to America. In recognizing these very
practical reasons, however, we should not obscure two additional motives
which I think are equally important.
It’s easy to
forget that the flamboyant Wilde was also a serious scholar. His penchant
for traveling and learning, remembering what he learned, and using that in
his writing had show itself at least as early as “Ravenna.” America offered
a wealth of new experiences and new knowledge.
The ship that
brought him to New York was still in quarantine when Wilde gave his first
interview to reporters. Though this 2 January interview is more commonly
remembered as the source of his famous, if apocryphal, quip that he was
disappointed with the Atlantic, Wilde is quoted by a reporter in the 3
January New York World as having said, “I came from England because I
thought America was the best place to see.” The New York Times
reported in their “Ten Minutes with a Poet” of the same day, that, “Of one
thing he was certain, that if he accomplished nothing else he will have seen
on this thought as the boat docked the following day. The 4 January
Indianapolis Journal quotes this remark: “I shall remain long enough to
see what there is worth seeing in glorious America. I have come to get
acquainted with the big-hearted American people.” Though probably calculated
to flatter the American public, I suspect there was more truth in Wilde’s
words to these interviewers than many have been willing to see.
have confined his tour to the East and well-known cities in the rest of the
country. The fact that he not only spoke, but also visited art schools and
artists in many places far less “important,” shows that he had a genuine
curiosity and considered “worth seeing” much that writers about his tour
have failed to perceive.
Wilde also, I
think, came to America not only to learn but to teach. Though widely
regarded as a “pose,” Wilde’s aestheticism was actually a result of strong
and well-reasoned convictions.
He had absorbed
his mother and father’s scholarly and nationalist interests, Ruskin’s
socialist teachings and Pater’s theories about art, combined them with his
classical education, added to them his extensive knowledge of philosophy,
theology and political history, and developed out of all of this a unique,
egalitarian outlook on the redemptive value of beauty in the every-day life
of all individuals and the role of the artist in the modern world.
It was an
outlook which he would continue to hold, despite great public ridicule, for
the rest of his life. Over the course of 1882, he would continue to clarify
and expand the definition of “Aestheticism” he gave in his first American
interview: “Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is
the science through which men look after the correlation which exists in the
arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.”
came to America to reveal nothing less.
Marilyn Bisch, President, OWSOA