Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America

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by Roy Morris Jr.

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Arriving at the port of New York in 1882, a 27-year-old Oscar Wilde quipped he had “nothing to declare but my genius.” But as Roy Morris, Jr., reveals in this sparkling narrative, Wilde was, for the first time in his life, underselling himself. A chronicle of the sensation that was Wilde’s eleven-month speaking tour of America, Declaring His


Arriving at the port of New York in 1882, a 27-year-old Oscar Wilde quipped he had “nothing to declare but my genius.” But as Roy Morris, Jr., reveals in this sparkling narrative, Wilde was, for the first time in his life, underselling himself. A chronicle of the sensation that was Wilde’s eleven-month speaking tour of America, Declaring His Genius offers an indelible portrait of both Oscar Wilde and the Gilded Age.

Wilde covered 15,000 miles, delivered 140 lectures, and met everyone who was anyone. Dressed in satin knee britches and black silk stockings, the long-haired apostle of the British Aesthetic Movement alternately shocked, entertained, and enlightened a spellbound nation. Harvard students attending one of his lectures sported Wildean costume, clutching sunflowers and affecting world-weary poses. Denver prostitutes enticed customers by crying: “We know what makes a cat wild, but what makes Oscar Wilde?” Whitman hoisted a glass to his health, while Ambrose Bierce denounced him as a fraud.

Wilde helped alter the way post–Civil War Americans—still reeling from the most destructive conflict in their history—understood themselves. In an era that saw rapid technological changes, social upheaval, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, he delivered a powerful anti-materialistic message about art and the need for beauty. Yet Wilde too was changed by his tour. Having conquered America, a savvier, more mature writer was ready to take on the rest of the world. Neither Wilde nor America would ever be the same.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this enjoyable biography, Morris (The Better Angel) captures Wilde’s yearlong 1882 North American lecture tour. Month after month, Wilde, already deemed the “public face of the Aesthetic Movement,” filled theaters and halls in 140 cities and towns over some 15,000 miles of the United States and Canada. His lectures were met with mixed reviews, but he was able to socialize with some of the best, including artists and actresses, literary men such as Whitman and Longfellow, senators, and even Jefferson Davis. In this way, the book serves not just as an account of Wilde’s year, but of a year in American cultural history—and thanks to helpful accounts from the droves of newspapermen and journalists that flocked to Wilde’s lectures, dined with him in his hotel rooms, and stalked him on train trips, Morris’s work is well researched and immensely detailed. Wilde may not have yet mastered the art of lecturing at this young age, but he still proved himself a master of the art of self-promotion. In the end, Morris argues: “America changed Wilde more than Wilde changed America.” The press’s interest in Wilde’s pantaloons-wearing, flower-eating persona combined with a hearty dose of Wilde witticisms throughout make this a fun and enlightening read, and the historical snapshot of America through the focused lens of Wilde’s trip also makes it an important one. Agent: Georges Borchardt. (Jan.)
Nicholas Frankel
Oscar Wilde's year-long lecture-tour of America was a major cultural event—a Victorian precursor to the British Invasion of the 1960s. Wilde came like an apostle, preaching the gospel of Art, and he left an indelible mark on America, just as America did on the mind of Wilde himself. Morris's is a much-needed and highly enjoyable account, distinguished by wit and insight as much as by his singular command of rarely-told facts.
Daily Beast - Anthony Paletta
[A] delightful account of the tour.
New Statesman
When he arrived in New York in January 1882, Oscar Wilde is supposed to have told customs officials: 'I have nothing to declare except my genius.' Roy Morris's contention is that the then 27-year-old Wilde's American tour marked the beginning of the modern cult of celebrity. Wilde, Morris writes, made quite an impression on his American hosts, 'who were naturally predisposed to appreciate rugged individualism in even its most exotic forms.'
Barnes and Noble Review - Adam Kirsch
Declaring His as entertaining a tour through Gilded Age America as Wilde's own journey must have been.
Wall Street Journal - Martin Riker
[A] terrifically engaging biographical study...Though a rigorous historian, Morris is at heart a storyteller, and Declaring His Genius is so packed with 19th-century curiosities that it at time reads like an oral history by a contemporary of Twain's, if not by Twain himself. The book is full of digressions, creating a colorful tableau of American characters and their stories.
Sydney Morning Herald - Owen Richardson
A panorama of life on the road in the Gilded Age.
Boston Globe - Richard Eder
If we think of Wilde in America, it is of a preening show-off announcing at customs that 'I have nothing to declare but my genius'; and going on to epigrammatize his way across the continent. The valuable point made by Morris is that beneath the performance--and it was one, with Wilde conscientiously playing the mocker's role the public paid to see, and the public collecting its due of pleasurable annoyance--there was something deeper. Elaborate mask aside, Wilde possessed an eye that was both avid and innocent; and if there was much in America and Americans to criticize, there was much that surprised, instructed, and pleased him.
San Francisco Chronicle - Fred Setterberg
[A] delightful romp.
New Criterion - Brooke Allen
Enlightening and entertaining.
Business Post - Andrew Lynch
Roy Morris Jr.'s exhaustive narrative chronicles everywhere [Wilde] went [in America], everyone he met and (almost) everything he ate. While this is very much a book for Wilde devotees, it still contains valuable insights into the media event that quickly became a blueprint for aspiring celebrities in all walks of life...Wilde may have been an incurable show-off, but Morris's blow-by-blow account shows that he was also an unusually kind man. He never used his wit to humiliate people, only to entertain them. Many Americans came along expecting to jeer at him and were quickly won over by his warm and robust personality...[The book] deserves credit for shedding new light on a period which many Wilde biographers have treated as a frivolous curtain-raiser before the main event.
Literary Review - Justin Beplate

Roy Morris Jr. treats us to a lively account of Wilde's rollicking tour through post-Civil

War America, fleshing out the varied impressions of contemporary newspaper reports with fascinating digressions on the cast of characters Wilde met along the way.

Choice - M. E. DiPaolo
Morris…paints a vivid portrait of Oscar Wilde’s 1882 tour of the U.S. His book is at once a scholarly and thoroughly researched text and an engaging--almost novelistic--narrative that academic researchers and the reading public alike can appreciate. It is replete with fascinating and amusing stories of Wilde’s encounters with Americans from all walks of life and social and economic classes; literature enthusiasts are likely to be particularly interested in tales of his meetings with the likes of Walt Whitman and Henry James. Stories of his ruffling feathers and winning admirers, challenging expectations and changing minds fill these pages of this captivating, must-read book.
Library Journal
Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience (1881) satirized the aesthetic movement for which Oscar Wilde, fresh out of Oxford, was already a kind of poster boy. Wilde's North American tour of 1882, ostensibly organized to promote Patience, was a significant event of popular culture in the late 19th century and certainly one of the most controversial. Wherever Wilde went—and he went everywhere in the United States and eastern Canada from New York to Utah mining camps and beyond—newspapers covered his lectures and appearances, sometimes praising his ideas but more often making fun of him and his mannerisms. It's a well-recorded part of Wilde's life, before he moved on to playwriting and literary fame, but Morris, an independent scholar, tells the story with verve. It is difficult not to be amused by Wilde's encounter with the ebullient Leadville miners or the dour Jefferson Davis. VERDICT While this title does not offer much new for Wildeans, it is delightful and in depth. Recommended both for those new to Wilde, and for his well-informed fans.—David Azzolina, Univ. of Pennsylvania Libs., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
A spirited account of the young Wilde's inspiring 11-month tour of America. Morris (Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain, 2010, etc.) chronicles a year in the life of Irish dandy and belletrist Wilde, who, at age 27, was bent on invading America the way Dickens had a generation before. An Oxford graduate, poet, student of John Ruskin and Walter Pater, and enthusiastic and visible proponent of the aesthetic movement in England, Wilde was, by January 1882, when he arrived in New York, already famous, though few could say why. Wilde was a self-promoting genius, Morris writes, "created, cultivated and commodified," like celebrities today. He hadn't yet written his famous works or openly embraced gayness, but in his elaborate, precious outfits, sporting sunflowers and lilies, dropping affected bons mots for journalists to scoop up as he instructed American audiences with authority on "The Beautiful" and "The Artistic Character of the English Renaissance," Wilde was challenging traditional notions of masculinity and also creating his celebrity. Morris goes step by step in this, drawing on Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst's book of newspaper interviews Oscar Wilde in America (2010) for a record of his decidedly uneven reception, from rapturous audiences in New York, where Napoleon Sarony took his famous photographs of Wilde in various guises; to Chicago, where he insulted his Midwestern audience for their ugly waterworks; to Denver, San Francisco, the South and Canada. He met Walt Whitman, Ambrose Bierce, Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant and generated "verbal donnybrooks" all along the way. In the end, Wilde and America shared a mutual affection. A fondly erudite look at a young, likable celebrity in the making.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Four: What Would Thoreau Have Said to My Hatbox?

Wilde’s own vanity was about to be challenged by a squadron of Harvard pranksters, but he would be ready for them. When he prepared to walk out on stage at the Boston Music Hall on January 31, the auditorium was full, notwithstanding a heavy snowstorm that interrupted carriage traffic. Julia Ward Howe was there, along with a heavy contingent of other women attendees. The two front rows, however, were strangely empty. Tipped off in advance—the newspapers had been full of warnings about the unruly behavior of Harvard undergraduates in the past—Wilde delayed his entrance backstage for fifteen minutes past the 8 o’clock starting time. By then, the empty seats had been filled by a madcap procession of sixty Harvard men who marched down the center aisle in pairs, all carrying sunflowers and wearing Wildean costumes of knee breeches, black stockings, wide-spreading cravats, and shoulder-length wigs.

Julia Ward Howe was aghast to see her favorite grand-nephew, Winthrop Astor Chanler (Class of ’86), at the forefront of the procession. “Wintie” Chanler was Sam Ward’s grandson; his father was the late Democratic congressman John Astor Chanler. The younger Chanler was one of the eight famous “Astor Orphans” who had been left parentless before the age of fourteen by the early deaths, to pneumonia, of both their mother and father, within two months of each other. Each orphan had a legacy of $20,000 a year from the Astor estate, which Wintie used chiefly to finance a lifelong career as a fox hunter and country squire, broken up only by service in the Spanish-American War. One of his distant cousins married Theodore Roosevelt, and the president later stood as godfather to Wintie’s son, future composer Theodore Ward Chanler, at a christening held in exclusive Newport, Rhode Island, in 1902.

Wilde let the college boys settle in, then walked onto stage to amused applause. He was wearing long trousers and a conservative coat—very much the grown-up in a crowd of adolescents. He opened his manuscript case and began to speak. “As a college man, I greet you. I am very glad to address an audience in Boston, the only city in America which has influenced thought in Europe, and which has given to Europe a new and great school of philosophy.” He looked up and gave a practiced start as he appeared to notice the Harvard crowd for the first time. “I see about me certain signs of an aesthetic movement,” Wilde said with a smile. “I see certain young men who are no doubt sincere, but I can assure them that they are no more than caricatures. As I look around me, I am impelled for the first time to breathe a fervent prayer, ‘Save me from my disciples.’ But rather let me, as Wordsworth says, ‘turn from these bold, bad men.’”

The bulk of Wilde’s talk was given over to the same English renaissance topics he had covered in New York and Philadelphia. The Harvard students attempted to reclaim the offensive by applauding lustily whenever Wilde paused for a drink of water, but they were hissed down by the rest of the crowd. Towards the end of the lecture, he again addressed the students directly. Describing the roadway he and his fellow Oxonians had built under the direction of John Ruskin to teach them the beauty of hard work, Wilde recommended that “these charming young men might be included to follow our example; the work would be good for them, though I do not believe they could build so good a road. I beg to assure the students before me that there is more to the movement of aestheticism than knee breeches and sunflowers.” Noting that he had visited Harvard earlier that afternoon and had been particularly impressed by the manly gymnasium there, he extended them a figurative olive branch, offering to present the college with a suitably Grecian statue expressing the unity of athletics and art. For that matter, said Wilde, he did not see why a prospective graduate couldn’t receive a Harvard diploma for painting a picture or sculpting a beautiful statue as much as for completing a course in “that dreadful record of crime known as history.” On this point, the students were won over entirely.

Meet the Author

Roy Morris, Jr., is the author of numerous books, including Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain.

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Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
StefanS More than 1 year ago
Readers who don't want to study a weighty biography of Oscar Wilde may enjoy this brief (200 p) and well-written book. The advantages of this volume include Ray Morris Jr's clear exposition and judicious choice of aphorisms, both of which keep the narrative focused, informative, and entertaining. The chief disadvantage of a brief history such as this is that it necessarily piques the reader's interest without satisfying all the — admittedly digressive — threads it uncovers. But it would be a shame to overlook this volume, so I recommend a handy adjunct for curious readers: Have your laptop or pad handy so you can look up some of the fascinating people in this narrative. Many readers know about Ambrose Bierce, but how about Lillie Langtry, Joaquin Miller, Victoria Woodhull, Clara Morris, and many others?