Tour of America In the early 1880s, when Aestheticism was the rage and despair of literary London, Wilde established himself in social and artistic circles by his wit and flamboyance. Soon the periodical Punch made him the satiric object of its antagonism to the Aesthetes for what was considered their unmaculine devotion to art and in their comic opera Patience. Wilde agreed to lecture in the United States and Canada. Wilde was given the paradoxical opportunity to characterize and popularize the intensely reflective and individualistic aesthetic movement. In 1881 Oscar Wilde saw himself in a position of man that required company and indulgence of leisure, and to sustain this he needed money in a time where money was scarcer than ever.
He mortgaged his hunting lounge and sold a bit of his Dublin property to obtain some wealth. Oscar Wild had just finished two plays and was waiting to the rehearsals to start of Mr. Beeres Verato begin. During this time producer Richard Carte in New York approached Wild. Carte was running a not so successful play of New York at the time, but another part of his enterprise was to manage lecture tours.
Carte wanted to give Americans a chance to see and hear the leading advocate of aestheticisms. It did not take Wilde long to consider. The next day on October 1 he cabled back “Yes, if offer good.” Carte would cover Wildes expenses and would share equally with him the net profits. After communicating back and forth by letter Wildes repertoire was narrowed quickly. Americans did not want poems recited to them what Americans wanted were “The Beautiful.” (Ellmann 150) Wilde accepted this proposal in December, but he asks that the tour should start at the begging of 1882.
He wanted to in London for the opening of Vera. The play he was waiting to open never does. This gave him time to prepared carefully for his tour. What to wear came first. Wilde thought of a costume for his tailor to make.
A heavy coat made sense in the American if not the English climate (Ellmann 154). As to lecturing Wilde knew he had no talent for oratory. His friend Hermann Vezin gave him elocution lessons, ” I want a natural style, with a touch of affectation.” “Well, said Vezi, “and havent you got that, Oscar?”(Ellmann 155) Wilde had yet prepared a lecture and was planning to write his lecture on his departure on the Arizona, which was to embark on December 24, 1881. But by the time the ship docked on January 2 he did not have it ready (Ellmann 158) When the Arizona docked in New York, the reporters where they are to catch his first words. On his way through customs Wild pronounced, “I have nothing to declare, except my genius.” (Cevasco 15) Wilde was asked many questions by the press. He was unprepared for his lecture as well as for answering the presss question so he didnt say much and what he did say often was taken out of context.
When he was asked about his voyage he responded, “I am not exactly please with the Atlantic. It is not as majestic as I expected. The sea seems tame to me. The roaring ocean does not roar.”(Ellman 158) Report launch had outstayed its time, but the reporters hung on to ask Wilde about his cultural mission. When asked what was this aestheticism he had crossed the sea to promulgate, he only laughed.
But when asked on what is his politics? Mr. Wild responding, “Those matters are of no interest to me, I know only two termscivilization and barbarism, and I am on the side of civilization”(Cevasco 15). Later on when he was asked to comment on civilization in American, he said, “I believe the most serious problem for the American people to consider is the cultivation of better manners. It is the most noticeable, the most painful defect in American civilization”(Cevasco 16). On January 5th, soon after Wilde arrived in New York, he attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivans Patience, an operetta that satirized the aesthetic movement. The main character in the play is a ridiculous young aesthete probably modeled on Wilde, and apparently the first entrance of Bunthorne on this particular night caused a theater-wide double take as eyes moved from the stage to Wilds box.
Wilds carefully staged encounter with this portrait of himself, his choice to openly confront this portrait and cause the double take defined his task in America. By January 9 his lecture was written, typed, and it was time for his first lecture. His lecture was titled “The Great Aesthete” which rejected the social conception of the natural (Cevasco 16). Tickets were sold out,and there was no way he could fail. His audience could now take stock of his attire, which was not at all what he had been wearing to the receptions and was far more daring that anything in the lecture.
He wore velvet doublet, knee breeches which showed off his well-turned legs and feet and silk stockings. The essay, which he read out, was in contrast to his costume. What he said makes dull reading, as it consisted of paraphrase of Russian and Pater, but his audiences were pleased with his platform delivery. They preferred entertainment and Wild gave them what they wanted, if his words meant little he still spoke with great authority and his enunciation was perfect (Ellman 164). Where his words failed he wardrobe carried the message.
The audience applauded warmly. Not all of them please, some had been bored, but all recognized that they had been in the presence of something unaccustomed (Ellman 165). In his trip to Boston sixty Harvard Students each dressed in knee breeches and carrying a sunflower progressed into the lecture hall taking front row seats. Wild was informed of this and appeared on the platform in evening dress making the boys feeling very foolish. Capitalizing on the event he began his talk with a remark that he was pleased to detect “certain signs of artistic movement in the lecture hall.” (Cevasco 16) Everyone laughed including those in the front row. After his lecture in Boston, he headed west and stopped to see the sights.
But many of the sights, he says, in America disappointed him. He made a remark on the Mississippi River saying, “No well behaved river ought to act that way”(Cevasco 16). There again he wasnt much impressed in the Niagara falls describing it as “simply a vast amount of water going the wrong way and the falling over unnecessary rocks” think that everyone agreed with him he added “Every American bride is taken there and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest if not the keenest disappointments in American married life”(Cevasco 17). While at the Nigra fall he received a telegram from the major of Griggsville asking “Will you lecture us on aesthetics?” Wilde replied by saying, “Begin by changing the name of your town”(Cevasco 17). He was told that if he went to visit Leadville in Denver the miners would sure to shoot him or his traveling manager. Nothing the miners could do to his traveling manager, he replied would intimidate him.
Wild described the miners as “the best dressed men in America”(Cevasco 17). The miners took a liking to him. They went out and drank. The next day they took him to the bottom of a mineshaft. Oscar reported afterwards “we sat down to a banquet, the first course whiskey, the second whiskey, the third whiskey”(Cevasco 17.
When they were brought up they were near unconsciousness but Wilde continued to chat away as cordially as though he were at a London Tea Party. From Denver he lectured in San Francisco then headed east and south lecturing in New Orleans, Dallas, Galveston, Savannah and Charleston. In over a ten-month period, he delivered almost one hundred lectures in dozens of American cities. In New York, Boston, and Chicago he had been paid a thousand dollars a lecture. Even smaller cities never paid less that two hundred.
Before leaving, Whilde visited Whitman. On January 18, 1882 Wilde visited Whitman at Whitmans brothers home in Camden, NJ. After Wilde explained that he and his friends at Oxford carried Leave of Grass to read on their walks, the two poets sat down and shared a bottle of elderberry wine. On the day of his departure reporters captured some of his final words while in America “They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris” he began “I would add that when bad Americans die they stay in America.” Oscar Wilde returned to Liverpool in 1883 to waiting reporter, he summed up his tours of America as “One Long Expectoration.” In need of a vacation after spending a few weeks in London he went to Paris. Wildes lecture tour of America was an experience for Wilde as well as the Americans. Both were inspired by new ideas and thoughts, which brought new life in the arts.
Wilde was a man of beauty and the Americas were in a state of needing some. The inspiration that Wilde created gave them a new life. Though Wilde was not impressed of what America had to offer he came home more talented and confident than ever before. Bibliography Cevasco, G.A. Oscar Wilde. Charlotteville, NY: SamHar Press, 1972. Ellmann, Richard.
Oscar Wilde. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.