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IN THE WILDE’S OF NORTH AMERICA

NAME-DROPPING OSCAR WILDE in my recent tale of Horace and Baby Doe Tabor calls for learning more about Wilde’s 1882 tour of North America. Indeed, a fellow named John Cooper has already done considerable research in this regard and maintains the Oscar Wilde in America website..

John Cooper, Wilde scholar and author, is a member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London and founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America. He lectures and contributes to academic journals on Wilde and also moderates Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups. Here are Wilde tour tidbits gleaned from Cooper’s fine website, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, 1854–1900, Irish poet and playwright. Image from the Oscar Wilde in America website.

Cooper writes, “Shortly after his arrival in New York for his 1882 Lecture Tour, Oscar Wilde posed for a series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony, who was at the time the most famous portrait photographer in America.” The image above is from the Sarony collection.

What Wilde Likely Didn’t Say. It’s often cited that when a U.S. Custom official asked Wilde if he had anything to declare, Wilde replied, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” 

A great line, and Cooper spent considerable research seeking a definitive source of this quip. He concludes that “reasonable inference must be towards doubt.” At best, “The remark is based on hearsay,” and didn’t appear until thirty years later, in Arthur Ransome’s book Oscar Wilde A Critical Study, 1912. 

In particular, Wilde was known for recycling his quips, and it’s surprising that such a good one would have gone unrepeated. 

A Vast Ocean? For example, “I was very much disappointed in the Atlantic Ocean” is a Wilde bon mot that recurred in his lectures. This one has a definitive origin cited in The Sun (New York), January 3, 1882: “ ‘It was very tame,’ Wilde said, ‘I expected to have it roar about and be beautiful in its storms. I was disappointed in it.’ ” 

This reminds me of Halley’s Comet during its 1986 appearance: Wouldn’t it have been more impressive if it rattled rooftops while passing by?

Niagara Falls. The New York Herald, October 30, 1882, had Wilde commenting, “Niagara Falls seemed to me to be simply a vast, unnecessary amount of water going the wrong way and then falling over unnecessary rocks.” 

Cooper also shares Wilde’s oft-cited quip about Niagara honeymoons: “Niagara will survive any criticism of mine. I must say, however, that it is the first great disappointment in the married life of many Americans who spend their honeymoons there.”

Across North America, Day by Day. From January 9 to November 27, 1882, Wilde delivered 141 lectures in the U.S. and Canada, many on a day-following-day basis. Previous attempts at a definitive itinerary contained inconsistencies, so Cooper meticulously consulted primary sources to form a more accurate schedule.

Case Hall, Cleveland. Other speakers at this venue one time or another included Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, and Mark Twain. Image from Case Western Reserve University.

Venues ranged from Baltimore’s Academy of Music, to Cleveland’s Case Hall, to the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado, to San Francisco’s Platt’s Hall. Wilde’s lecture topics were The English Renaissance, The Decorative Arts, and The House Beautiful. 

California Trippin’. “The further West one comes,” Wilde wrote, “the more there is to like.” Cooper notes that the journey from Nebraska to California “constituted his longest period of continuous traveling—4 days and 4 nights—incorporating some 1867 miles and over 200 station stops.” 

Cooper says, “The western Sierra Nevada impressed Wilde almost as much as his favorite New York restaurant. He wrote, ‘The two most remarkable bits of scenery in the States are undoubtedly Delmonico’s and the Yosemite Valley.” 

Wilde wrote to a friend about traveling “up the Sierra Nevadas, the snow-capped mountains shining like shields of polished silver in that vault of blue flame we call the sky, and deep cañons full of pine trees, … and at last from the chill winter of the mountains down into eternal summer here, groves of orange trees in fruit and flower, green fields, and purple hills, a very Italy, without its art.” 

Ever the aesthete, pursuing art for art’s sake. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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