Wilde West

On this day in 1881 Oscar Wilde embarked for America and a year-long lecture tour on such topics as “The House Beautiful” and “The Decorative Arts.” He may or may not have told passengers that “the roaring ocean does not roar,” or told a customs agent that “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” but the captain did apparently express his regret at not having Wilde “lashed to the bowsprit on the windward side.” Thousands flocked to see and hear Wilde, and many so took to heart his proclaimed mission “to make this artistic movement the basis for a new civilization” that craft societies and museum patronage blossomed in his wake. Letters home had Wilde crowing that he was a bigger hit than Dickens, the personal adulation necessitating three secretaries: “One writes my autographs all day for my admirers, the other receives the flowers that are left really every ten minutes. A third whose hair resembles mine is obliged to send off locks of his own hair to the myriad maidens of the city, and so is rapidly becoming bald.”

Notwithstanding, Wilde was an easy, if not eager, target in America. A few mocked his poetry or his ideas; some, at their peril, mocked his utterances; most made fun of his appearance — the “great ungainly crane” body, dressed in purple Hungarian smoking jacket with matching turban, knee breeches and black silk stockings, coat lined with lavender satin, everything laced and caped and topped with sky blue cravat. Seeing an opportunity, one Chicago clothing store used a picture of the “Ass-thete” to promote their manlier line. Such frontier manners had Wilde sometimes put out but rarely overmatched, and usually game for any adventure. After one talk in Leadville, a mining town in the Rocky Mountains — “I spoke to them of the early Florentines, and they slept as though no crime had ever stained the ravines of their mountain home” — Wilde agreeably descended to the bottom of a silver mine in a bucket (“I of course true to my principle being graceful even in a bucket”). There, to great cheering, he dined, drank whiskey, and smoked a cigar, all but preamble to the main event:

Then I had to open a new vein, or lode, which with a silver drill I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named “The Oscar.” I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in “The Oscar,” but in their artless untutored fashion they did not. Only the silver drill remains as a memory of my night at Leadville.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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