• “A Nation of Lunatics.” What Oscar Wilde Thought About America

    Rob Marland on the Irish Writer’s Grand Tour of the Gilded Age United States

    On the evening of January 2, 1882, five men rowed out over the choppy gray waters of New York’s Upper Bay to the SS Arizona, a transatlantic steamer anchored at quarantine a quarter mile off Staten Island. They clambered up an icy rope ladder and spilled onto the deck. Following the directions of the ship’s bemused passengers, they elbowed their way to a twenty-seven year old Irishman clad in a bottle-green ulster, a low-necked white shirt, and a billowing blue silk tie.

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    “How do you like America, Mr. Wilde?” asked one of the men.

    Oscar Wilde burst out laughing in a succession of broad “haw, haw, haws.” He didn’t think it politic to answer: all he had seen of the country was an oil lamp flickering on the horizon.

    Wilde was in America to lecture on art. But the main reason his managers had brought him across the Atlantic was to cross-promote a comic opera by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Patience; or, Bunthorne’s Bride parodied London’s “aesthetes”—followers of an artistic craze for blue-and-white china, sunflowers, and peacock feathers. Wilde was a prominent aesthete, so Gilbert and Sullivan’s manager hit upon the idea of using Wilde to educate Americans about the fad. Wilde would create a demand for tickets for Patience, and audiences for Patience would rush to see the genuine article.

    In the early 1880s interviewing was a peculiarly American custom, and one for which Wilde was unprepared.

    The scheme worked. Wilde became a phenomenon. His photographs and book of poems sold in stacks. A constant stream of stories about him flooded the press. Newspaper readers wanted to know more about the real Oscar Wilde, and to meet this desire editors sought interviews with the “Apostle of Aestheticism.”

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    In the early 1880s interviewing was a peculiarly American custom, and one for which Wilde was unprepared. He confided in the magazine proprietor (and his future sister-in-law) Mrs. Frank Leslie that he had “turned his back” on New York’s “horrible reporters”; she reminded him that it was their business to interview as it was his to lecture, and that he would be better off giving them something to print, else they would be liable to turn on him. Wilde was usually averse to good advice, but he took Leslie’s.

    Aware that controversy made the best copy, he steered interviewers away from dull subjects (his favorite color, his definition of aestheticism) and instead slammed what he saw as the architectural travesties of America. The marble mansions of New York’s Fifth Avenue were “so depressing and monotonous”; Chicago’s gothic water-tower, “really too absurd.” He insisted that “a police force for the protection of art ought to be established to prevent the residents of Long Branch from painting their fences in such awful reds and greens.”

    Wilde proved himself ahead of his time with another of his chosen talking points: environmental pollution. In the rapidly industrializing West, there were few restrictions on burning factory waste or dumping it into rivers. Wilde was appalled by the “filthy cloud” that hung over Cincinnati, and the Ottawa River, which was “choked with sawdust.” Again and again he asserted that “[i]t is quite impossible to have any art unless you have good air, good water, and clean cities.” Although his opinions would be uncontroversial today, journalists at the time found them laughable. An interviewer in Louisville pointed out that Western folk “have not the time to object to a few ounces of mud more or less to the gallon of water.”

    An inveterate name-dropper, Wilde couldn’t resist telling interviewers about his famous chums, the artist James McNeill Whistler and the poet Algernon Swinburne (whom he had met only once). Following an afternoon with Walt Whitman he declared the Good Gray Poet “one of the noblest and purest men I have ever met.” He rushed to meet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was then on his deathbed, though not because he admired the poet’s works. As he later told interviewers, “Longfellow was more a beautiful poem himself than a poet.”

    Wilde found that interviews were a handy forum for settling scores. After the popular Chicago preacher David Swing attacked him in the press, branding him “an intellectual and emotional abyss”, he wrote to the city’s newspapers asking for interviewers to be sent his hotel. “There is nothing more depressing than to be attacked by a fool,” he told the Tribune and Inter Ocean, “as one…does not fight with the same weapons.” Swing was silenced.

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    Most interviewers were surprised to find that Wilde was nothing like Gilbert and Sullivan’s clownish caricature. Instead he was a gifted conversationalist with wide-ranging interests. But not everyone was impressed. On the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco Wilde was introduced to a group of reporters who courteously doffed their hats. Wilde failed to return the gesture, much to the annoyance of one interviewer who used it as a pretext for blasting Wilde in his article. The visiting aesthete was “very vain,” “exceedingly effeminate,” and his “personal cleanliness” left much to be desired. Prefiguring more than a century of jokes about British dentistry, the interviewer also confided in his readers that Wilde’s teeth had evidently not been “submitted to the professional eye and hand of a dentist in early life.”

    Wilde often spoke with interviewers in his hotel rooms, lounging on a sofa spread with an old gold shawl and a fur rug. But American interviewers were resourceful, and tracked down the “Apostle of Aestheticism” wherever he might be. As Wilde’s train was passing through Nevada a reporter from Reno hopped on board for an impromptu chat. Wilde, caught off guard, imprudently declared that American papers were “full of rubbish” and that “if people read them and were satisfied with them…this must be a nation of lunatics.”

    He was more composed when, on a train in Colorado, he was approached by the editor of a women’s magazine. “Why, don’t you know me?” she asked. “I am the lady whom the state press says should be the one to take the nonsense out of you.” An interviewer traveling with Wilde recorded the aesthete’s response: “You have, then, a prodigious task before you, madam; indeed, one that would take you until the end of the century to accomplish.”

    Wilde was accompanied by interviewers on sight-seeing tours of various cities. In Lincoln, Nebraska, he was taken to see the city’s most prominent buildings: the state penitentiary and the “insane asylum.” At the asylum he burst out with indignation at the miserable decor. “I would have the gayest colors possible in those wards,” he said. The patients should have “fantastic dresses, music boxes, means of enjoyment.” On the ride back, Wilde, who rarely spoke of his childhood, confided in his interviewer that he had “always been melancholy as a boy.”

    In August Wilde was found relaxing on the piazza of a hotel in an upstate New York spring town, and proved talkative on the subject of his friend Lillie Langtry, the former mistress of the Prince of Wales. Her beauty was “perennial. I shall write sonnets to Mrs. Langtry when she is 95.” Asked how Mr. Langtry took that, Wilde replied, “He takes it philosophically. Perhaps he feels, somehow, that he is an intruder.” After a moment he continued, “I have fallen into the habit of thinking that the husbands of beautiful women belong to the criminal classes.” This was the first recorded use of the epigram. A decade later Wilde would include it in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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    If English reporters had been as pushy as their transatlantic peers, we might have more insight into the years of Wilde’s pomp.

    At other summer resorts Wilde was pursued not only by reporters but by his fellow guests. He told an interviewer for the Philadelphia Times that at Saratoga he was listening to an outdoor band with a few friends. “Would you believe it? In fifteen minutes, between three and four hundred women had gathered round and stood gaping at us. Old women and young girls, and mothers leading their daughters by the hand.” Wilde rushed first to the billiard room, and then to the bar. The women followed. “Oh, it was so pathetic!” said Wilde. “They must either have been so secure as to be beyond the fear of scandal, or they must have been wholly without shame.” Before long newspapers were filled with articles about how Wilde had “insulted the women of Saratoga”.

    In the fall of 1882, with his drawing power as a lecturer on the wane, Wilde rented rooms in New York and spent his time hobnobbing with the city’s artistic and theatrical sets. Many journalists were by now tiring of his presence and by his criticisms of the American press and American manners. They seized any opportunity to score off him, and were overjoyed when he fell prey to a gambling scam. A New York Tribune interviewer tracked him to Delmonico’s restaurant, one of his favorite haunts. Was it true that he had lost over a thousand dollars on a card game? “It does not concern me enough to either deny it or affirm it,” said Wilde in a soft, low voice. But he was less serene when accosted by a correspondent for Joseph Pulitzer’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

    “This is the latest and most extraordinary fabrication that I have yet heard and I have been made the victim of several,” said Wilde. “[T]here is not a shade of truth in it. It is totally untrue in every respect. I am not given to high play and certainly not with people I don’t know. You can deny it in every particular; it is most absurd. A more ridiculous thing I never heard of; please oblige me by denying it altogether.”

    Wilde was shaken by the scandal, and resolved to depart for England. An enterprising reporter for the New York Sun spotted him at his bank, closing his account. Was there any foundation to the story that Wilde had been swindled out of $3,000? “It is one of the wonderful stories got up by you American reporters,” said Wilde. “You are really the most ingenious people in the world. I assure you there is nothing whatever in it, and I can’t imagine how it started.”

    Early the next morning, under cover of darkness, Wilde made his way to the harbor. He had only told a few of his close personal friends of his departure but, somehow, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter was on hand to secure one last interview. Had Wilde enjoyed his visit to America? “Very much indeed,” Wilde replied. “I think America is a very progressive country, but it is somewhat behind in art, but that, of course, is to be expected.” He had been subjected to much ridicule but had made many friends and learned a great deal. “At present I want rest and peace and would like to go to a country where I am not known—if there is such a country.”

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    In Europe Wilde was interviewed less frequently, as the practice was not the norm there. This is a shame, because Wilde’s American interviews are a valuable source of his opinions and attitudes on a wide range of subjects. They show him honing his witty conversational style, and reveal his personality—often polite, occasionally prickly, always beguiling. If English reporters had been as pushy as their transatlantic peers, we might have more insight into the years of Wilde’s pomp, when he published Dorian Gray and collections of short stories and essays, stormed the London stage with a string of smash-hit society comedies, and courted controversy by canoodling in public with the son of a marquis.

    Thankfully, American journalists refused to allow a little thing like the Atlantic Ocean get in their way. In 1894, when An Ideal Husband was being prepared for its premiere at London’s Haymarket Theatre, the New York Press telegraphed to Wilde to request an interview. An hour later Wilde cabled his reply: “Very many thanks, but quite impossible. No one should read newspapers.” The Press sent a second telegram. “Many thanks for your wire. What should one read?” Wilde’s prompt response? “My own books, of course.”

    Rob Marland
    Rob Marland
    Rob Marland edited Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews and wrote Oscar Wilde: The Season of Sorrow, the first ever graphic novel about Oscar Wilde. He is currently researching Wilde’s first play and writing a graphic novel about his 1877 visit to Greece.

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