By Jeff Baker
“In the old days, men had the rack. Now they have the Press.” —Oscar Wilde.
It is possible, in the United States, to have crossed paths with the legendary Oscar Wilde without knowing it. Wilde did a lecture tour of the U.S. in 1882 that was supposed to last a few months. He wound up staying about a year, and crossed the States, touring the East and West coasts, traveling through the South and even visiting Canada. For years, however, the specifics of Wilde’s itinerary were a matter of debate, but now a fine website http://oscarwildeinamerica.org/lectures-1882/itinerary.html is trying to put together a comprehensive list.
What they have so far is impressive. Wilde made the expected stops; New York City, Boston and Philadelphia but he also made some unexpected ones. He drank whiskey with “some lovely miners” in Leadville, Colorado and gave an impromptu St. Patrick’s Day speech in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Remember, Wilde was Irish!)
Reception to Wilde varied. A lot of places he played to a packed house. Other places he spoke to crowds of forty or less. He was cheered, listened to attentively and heckled. He was generally ridiculed by the press. He was feted and invited to dinners and lunches by local celebrities. His stated topics included the English Renaissance, the Decorative Arts and other impromptu subjects.
So, what was it like to see Oscar Wilde on tour? According to “The Daily Witness” for May 15, 1882 when Wilde walked out on stage in Montreal: “He was clad in the now famous black velvet old-fashioned coat, waistcoat and knee-breeches, black silk hose and buckled shoes. Lace cuffs at the wrists, and lace collar surrounding the neck and falling gracefully over the chest, completed, with the flowing locks, a picturesque costume.” Wilde would simply stand and speak on his topic, occasionally resting one hand on his hip or on the table on stage. His topics were generally prepared and tied into his beliefs in aestheticism; the idea of “art for art’s sake,” and that art could be found in life.
Oscar Wilde In America is an excellent resource, and is a work in progress. Click on “Verified” in the list of Wilde’s appearances for photos of not only the venues that Wilde spoke at but the places he stayed. For example, in San Francisco, CA Wilde had a room at the Palace Hotel, which is still there. His accommodations in Washington D.C., the Arlington Hotel, are long gone but the site is the current location of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
And if you travel the U.S., remember that Oscar Wilde may well have been there before you.
Author’s Addenda: the Daily Witness quote is from another fine site about history Patrimonie, Historie et Multimedia.
Jeff Baker blogs about reading and writing Sci-Fi, fantasy and Horror on or around the thirteenth of each month. His story “Something In The Dark” was recently featured on the podcast “Monsters out of the Closet,” (along with an author interview.) he blogs and posts fiction at his own blog http://authorjeffbaker.com, and is on Facebook at Jeff Baker, Author.
He lives in Wichita with his husband Darryl and likes italics almost as much as he likes Oscar Wilde.