She Loves Me Not: New and Selected Storiesby Ron Hansen
From an author Praised by literary giants and critics alike, a stunning compendium of selected stories over three decades in the making.
Ron Hansen has long been/b>/i>/b>/i>
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From an author praised by literary giants such as John Irving and the New York Times alike, a stunning story collection—over two decades in the making.
From an author Praised by literary giants and critics alike, a stunning compendium of selected stories over three decades in the making.
Ron Hansen has long been celebrated as a master of both the novel and the short form. His stories have been called “beautifully crafted” (The New York Times), “unforgettable” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “diverse and expansive” (The Washington Post). His 1989 collection, Nebraska, was widely praised, and he has published stories in literary magazines nationwide—The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s, Tin House, The Paris Review, and many others.
In this new volume, comprising twelve new stories and seven pieces selected from Nebraska, the subjects of Hansen’s scrutiny range from Oscar Wilde to murder to dementia to romance, and display Hansen at his storytelling best: the craftsman described as “part Hemingway and part García Márquez . . . an all-American magic realist in other words, a fabulist in the native grain.” Readers will thrill to Hansen’s masterful attention to the smallest and most telling details, even as he plunges straight into the deepest recesses of desire, love, fury, and loss. Magisterial in its scope and surprising in its variety, She Loves Me Not shows an author at the height of his powers and confirms Hansen’s place as a major American writer.
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Wilde in Omaha
The Record of an Acquaintance
Since the overseas reports of Oscar Wilde’s premature death, in Paris, at age 46, I have experienced pangs of grief and loss, and have felt the need to memorialize our gladsome meeting eighteen years ago in a fuller way than the exigencies of newspaper journalism permitted at the time. I shall leave to posterity this record, hoping that some may consider it a fitting tribute to a man of literary genius who achieved greatness and also disgrace, but whose hours in Omaha still constitute, for many of us, a high point in our lives.
Initial Impressions of the Aesthetic Poet
I originally sought out the famous Mr. Wilde just after his lecture on “The English Renaissance” at the Academy of Music in Sioux City, but some of Iowa’s finer sort spirited him off like a petit roi to some Lucullan feast of the night and it was left to this reporter to find him in the Hubbard House at his rising in the morn. So it was in the milky light of sunup on Tuesday, March 21st, 1882, the first day of spring, that I first met the aesthetic poet and leader of the so-called Artistic Movement.
Wilde was lolling in the gray haze of a cigarette on the hotel’s patch-quilted bed, but was fully dressed in patent-leather shoes and a great, green, ankle-length coat whose collar and cuffs were trimmed with an otter fur that also formed the turban on his head. Underneath his coat was a white linen Lord Byron shirt and a sea-blue scarf he’d tied at his neck like a sailor. On his right, littlest finger was a great seal ring with a cameo of a classic Athenian face. Wilde was then a soft, pleasant innocent of 27, though he only owned up to being 25. I was 23.
I handed him my card from the Omaha Daily Herald.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’ve come,” he averred in a sigh, his timbre deep, his pacing languid. “There are a hundred things I want not to say to you.” Reading the card again, he said, “Robert Murphy. Are you called Bob?”
“I shall call you Bobby. Reporters so often remind me of the Metropolitan Police.”
“I do hope you won’t think I’m prying.”
“Certainly not, Bobby. I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly. But I don’t see any chance of it just at present.”
Entering his quarters was a strong, young, Negro valet whose name was W. M. Traquair or Traquier. I failed to spell it out in my notes. But I recall that as he in haste filled Wilde’s gripsacks and portmanteau, Wilde introduced us and speculated that the name’s origin may have been in the French noun traqueur, for those who thrash out game in a hunt. Wilde shook his fist in a facsimile of irritation. “But I shall thrash him, if he’s not deferential!”
His valet continued his folding and cramming.
Seeing my shorthand, Wilde took the opportunity to say his own name was properly Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. (At Oxford, I learned, he signed his papers “O.F.O’F.W.W.”)
“And here I was going to call you plain Oscar.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Would anyone, least of all my dear mother, Speranza, christen me plain Oscar?” He tapped his shortening cigarette’s ashes into a Japanese teacup. “I suppose as I continue to rise in lofty eminence I shall shed my names, just as a balloonist sheds ballast, and finally be called simply Wilde.”
“We’re ready for the train, Mr. Simply,” said Traquier.
“Oh, how could I function without him?” Wilde asked this reporter. “In a free country one cannot live without a slave.”
Surprisingly, his valet found that amusing. But it was possibly an old joke, for they’d been journeying westward together since the Irishman’s first lecture on January 9th at New York City’s Chickering Hall.
When Wilde got up and stabbed out his cigarette, I saw that he was far bigger than I’d imagined from eastern press reports where he was so often caricatured as a sissy because of his florid manner, his fat, fishy, voluptuous lips—one critic called it “a carnal mouth”—and the feminine effluence of his undulant, shoulder-length, chestnut-brown hair. Wilde was a hefty six foot three—six inches taller than me—rather wider at the waist than at his chest, but with large, farmerish hands to go with a large, pallid, slack-jawed face, a face that was akin to Billy the Kid’s. “China-blue eyes,” say my notes, “hooded, dreamy, debauched, and half-asleep”—a fact I chalked up to his being a confessed nocturnal who disliked waking in the forenoon. Walking out of the room, he revealed a pigeon-toed gait, and I noted that his hips swayed in a way that once caused an English ladyship to determine his sex as “undecided.”
We were to be cheek by jowl the whole day.
The Tyranny of Facts
Mr. J. S. Vail, Wilde’s traveling business manager, greeted us as we got to Sioux City’s railway depot. Although Vail was less than wildly enthusiastic about a reporter eavesdropping and recording the hithers and yons of “His Utterness,” he was but a grousing employee of Colonel Morse in England, who was himself merely the American tour booking agent of the fabulously successful London impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte. I presumed I was invited until someone had the gumption to say otherwise, and they didn’t find the grit.
Wilde and I shared a first-class compartment on the hundred-mile ride south to Council Bluffs. Traquier hunkered with the colored porters near the caboose and Vail, as was his habit, wandered off. The Omaha Daily Herald ambassador sought this advantage to have some particulars confirmed.
Wilde yawned at the notion.
“Don’t you appreciate some occasional accuracy in reporting?”
“It’s simply that one can’t escape the tyranny of facts. One can scarcely open a newspaper without learning something useful about the sordid crimes against greengrocers or a dozen disgusting details relating to the consumption of pork. On the other hand, I do like hearing myself talk. It is one of my greatest pleasures.” Our railway car jerked forward into a screaking roll and Wilde looked outside. Watching soot-blackened shanties slide past, he said, “I find railway travel the most tedious experience in life. That is, if one excepts being sung to in Albert Hall, or dining with a chemist.”
I sallied forth recklessly by asking, “Was this outré persona of yours concocted at Oxford or earlier?”
Wilde forgot himself momentarily and grinned with buck teeth of a smoker’s yellow hue. And then he superimposed his mask again. “I behave as I have always behaved—dreadfully. And that is why people adore me.” After a little reflection, he added, “Besides, to be authentically natural is a difficult pose to keep up.”
Oscar was the son of the late Sir William Wilde—a distinguished Dublin surgeon, archaeologist, man of letters, and gossiped sire of three illegitimate children—and Lady Jane “Speranza” Wilde, a large, flamboyant poet, translator, and Irish nationalist who called herself “a priestess at the altar of freedom.” She was a fabled hostess who claimed to be above respectability, and once, Wilde told me, “considered founding a Society for the Suppression of Virtue.” Disappointed that she’d given birth to a boy instead of a girl, she dressed Oscar in flounces and petticoats until he was nine, schooled him extensively with private tutors, spoke to him in German and French. In childhood Oscar taught himself to read two facing pages at a glance and could finish a three-volume novel in an hour. “I’m so well informed,” Wilde told me, “that my mind is like a horrid bric-a-brac shop, full of monsters and dust, and everything priced above its proper value.”
At Trinity College in Dublin, where he felt “like a carrier pigeon in a nest of sparrows,” Wilde majored in classical languages and literature for three years, then won a scholarship to Magdalen College at Oxford. There he affected whimsical costumes, was nicknamed Hosky, studied aesthetics and art with John Ruskin and Walter Pater, earned a rare double First in Latin and Greek—Aeschylus was his favorite playwright—and was awarded the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his long, lachrymose elegy “Ravenna,” its rather trite rhyming couplets describing the vanishing glories of the Italian city.
Soon Wilde was living on fashionable Tite Street in the Chelsea area of London and was a swank man about town, friendly, he said, with that finest of the English painters, James McNeill Whistler, as well as the international beauty Mrs. Lillie Langtry, with whom he was fruitlessly in love, and even the Prince of Wales, who’d said of Oscar to “not know Mr. Wilde is not to be known.” The London actress Ellen Terry said of Wilde that “about him there is something more instantaneously individual and audacious than it is possible to describe.” Just so.
Owing to his increasing celebrity, the British magazine Punch twitted him in a number of cartoons and criticized his art with the note “The poet is Wilde. But his poetry’s tame.” Wilde and the vogue of aestheticism were lampooned in such theatrical entertainments as The Grasshopper, The Colonel, and Where’s the Cat? And then W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan created the opera Patience, in which the fatuous characters of Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor were both modeled on Wilde. A great financial success in London and New York for its producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, Patience was what conveyed Oscar Wilde on a speaking tour through the heartland of America, not his wretched and unproduced drama Vera nor his sixty-one shuffled-up and self-published Poems. Even his booking agent disparaged Wilde as simply “the latest form of fashionable madness.”
Wilde and I talked about all these things, and lastly the plays, most of which he dismissed as insipid burlesques. But of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience Wilde would only say, “Oh, Bobby. Satire is the usual homage which mediocrity pays to genius.”
And then he turned to pull down the green window shade, shutting out the cloudless blue serene and the plowed Iowa farm fields we were trundling past, their even rows of earth and sillion shining glossily in the sun.
“You’re missing the view,” I said.
Wilde lit another cigarette. “I hate views,” he said. “They were only made for bad painters. And thus far the prairie has only reminded me of a sheet of blotting paper.”
There was a novel entitled Mirage in which Wilde starred as a character with the name of Claude Davenant—which Wilde enjoyed mispronouncing as “Deviant.” The authoress wrote of Claude speaking “in a low voice, with peculiarly distinct enunciation; he spoke like a man who has made a study of expression. He listened like one accustomed to speak.”
Oxford erased much of Wilde’s Irish accent, but encouraged his gift for epigram and taught him a rhythmic oratory full of inflection and rhetorical pauses, of heightening pitch falling off into monotone so that it could rise precipitously again. One reporter swore that Wilde spoke in hexameter lines, another that he accentuated every fourth syllable, and his affect was such that it was not uncommon for newspapers to record his diverting visits in verse. It was a tendency I would resist. Yet I did find myself ever leaning forward in his company, scribbling shorthand across the tablet on my knee, half-fearful my pencil would break and I would miss a stray jest or opinion. But after a while he fell into a silent and sullen mood, for he thought “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast,” and Omaha was his thirty-eighth stop on an American tour that would not end until October 13th. Wilde was conserving himself for the entertainments of the afternoon and evening.
We changed to a Union Pacific train in Council Bluffs, and Wilde stood between the rocking cars with me and Vail and Traquier and the baggage for the short shuttle across the Big Bridge into Nebraska. Seeing the wide Missouri River, Wilde called it “disappointing”; he thought it had “a want of grandeur and variety of line.” But as we continued our screeching way high above it, Wilde held so tightly to the iron railing that his knuckles whitened and he excitedly praised its “majesty,” “the sheer physical force of its currents,” even “its tawny color and green, aesthetic shadings.”
“Are you trying to buy it off with flattery?” Vail asked. “You do know that if you fall you’ll still drown.”
Wilde turned to his valet. “Who needs song and sunflowers when one can have the solace of Mr. Vail?”
The “Peasantry” of the West
Waiting for us at the Union Pacific depot on Tenth Street were three pillars of Omaha City: Dr. George L. Miller, 52, was a graduate of the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons, a former member of the Nebraska Territorial Council, a former sutler at Fort Kearny, holder of wide real estate interests in our fifteen-year-old state, and joint proprietor and editor-in-chief of the Omaha Daily Herald. With him was Lyman Richardson, 47, of the University of Michigan, a captain on the staff of General Steele in the War of the Rebellion, and joint proprietor and business manager of the same cynosure of journalism. The affable financier with a mustache as wide as a house-painting brush was Mayor James E. Boyd, also 47, from County Tyrone, Ireland, the owner of the Omaha Gas Works, the Central National Bank, the Omaha and Northwestern Railroad Company, a cattle ranch in Wyoming, an Omaha pork packing company, and Boyd’s Opera House on the northeast corner of Farnam and Fifteenth Streets, where Wilde would lecture that evening. Each man zealously shook Wilde’s hand, and then Wilde said, “I’m so very glad to meet the peasantry of the West.”
My editor-in-chief glared at me, as if to say, “What have you gotten me into?”
I could only shrug. I recalled Wilde saying that a gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.
Though it was little more than a bracing walk from the depot, we took carriages to the Withnell House on Fifteenth and Harney Streets, where Wilde and his party would be ensconced. Wilde inquired innocently about the origins of the city, and Dr. Miller expatiated on the Omaha Claim Club, a score of men who each purchased from the Omaha Indian chief Logan Fontenelle, for ten dollars, three hundred twenty acres of hilly wilderness on the west side of the Missouri River. Within twenty years some of their city lots were selling for one hundred dollars a foot.
“So you have done rather nicely in your investments,” said Wilde.
“Indeed,” said my employer.
“We now have a population of thirty-two thousand,” said the Irish mayor to his Irish guest. “And one hundred sixty-five saloons, should you find yourself parched with a Saharan thirst that needs slaking.”
“I shall inform Willie, my older brother.”
My employer inquired, “And what does this Willie work at?”
Wilde sighed. “At intervals,” he said.
Eddies of dust fishtailed down the newly bricked streets. Water trickled toward our just-installed sewers. The steel tracks for our horse-drawn trolley cars winked silver in the noonday sun. Everywhere I looked there were hints of beauty and civilization and new limestone commercial buildings with ornate cornices and tall plateglass windows and ceilings of painted tin fleur-de-lis. But Wilde observed, “The fault in American architecture is that most of the buildings are mere constructions of incongruous anachronisms.”
We heard the clopping of the horses’ hooves in the silence.
Wilde asked innocently, “Are there industries here?”
The mayor noted with pride there were many. And more to come.
“Industry is the root of all ugliness,” Wilde said.
Dr. Miller tilted until he could lock a cold stare on my floor-seeking eyes.
Mayor Boyd folded his arms in high dudgeon. “I can only disagree.”
“Oh good,” said Wilde. “When people agree with me I always feel that I must be in the wrong.”
The Withnell House, so named for brothers who also owned the brick factory, was the former headquarters for the military during the Indian Wars and the finest hotel in Omaha until the Paxton and the Mercer were built. (President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant were hosted at a Republican banquet in the Withnell House in 1879.) While the Omaha greeting delegation repaired to their mansions to get their wives, we cooled our heels in the hotel’s sumptuous lobby and Vail registered at the front desk. Surprised by Wilde’s rudeness, I mentioned to him, “Aren’t you a little ornery with the citizenry?”
Wilde played surprise. “But I love the public,” he said. “I patronize them as often as I can.”
I could see Vail flinging a hand with demands, and I was irked when the Omaha registrar tractably accommodated him. Traquier pressed his high-buttoned shoe into a vermilion Persian carpet and judged it soft as angel food cake. Wilde lit a cigarette and admired the lovely dadoes, plinths, and flutes on the Athenian columns. My shorthand recorded a wide-eyed darling toddling to the dining room and too loudly whispering to her mother, “Why doesn’t his wife cut his hair?”
Wilde laughed and called to the girl, “I’m too poor to have a wife! I can afford nothing but self-denial!”
“But not for long,” said Vail, holding out to Wilde the skeleton key to his suite.
“Are you wangling more engagements?” I asked the traveling business manager.
“On the morrow we head to San Francisco and a contract at Platt’s Hall for four lectures.” Vail grinned and wrung his hands as I had imagined Fagin doing in Oliver Twist. “Two weeks in California for a fee of five thousand dollars.”
I was stunned. I made just over four hundred dollars a year.
Wilde said, “Mr. Vail also received a wire from some odious village called Griggsville demanding that I instruct them in aesthetics.”
The other shoe failed to drop so I tipped it. “And what did you say?”
“Begin by changing the name of your town.”
“And the threats,” Vail hinted.
“Oh yes. Elsewhere, the owners of an opera house wanted my performance and insinuated violence against Mr. Vail were it denied them. I told them that nothing that they could do to my traveling manager would intimidate me in the least.”
Vail chortled and shook his head.
Wilde turned to his valet. “Shall we go up?”
A Grand Luncheon Held for Him
Wilde’s visit was sponsored by the Social Art Club of Omaha: seventy-five of our finer women who took classes in sketching, watercolors, and oils to eradicate their lonesomeness and loss of eastern culture. Worrying that they’d get too little of him in just an evening’s entertainment, they were holding a grand luncheon for him in the Withnell House. While he was changing, I stayed in the lobby to watch the guests saunter in. Entering first was Edward Rosewater, the Bohemian owner and editorial director of our rival paper, the Omaha Daily Bee. In the instant I seem to have been rendered invisible to him. Then a liveried footman held open a glass and brass door for the shy Mrs. Emma Doherty, who smiled gently my way, and the Reverend Doctor Robert Doherty, 38, originally of County Cavan, Ireland, and just installed as Canon Residentiary of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Immediately after them came Mrs. Mary Jane Paxton in a fashionable Sears, Roebuck dress and a wide veiled hat, holding the hand of her husband, William, 45, owner of an ironworks company and a wholesale grocery, a stockholder in the First National Bank, and the president of the Union Stockyards. Walking in alone was Dr. Amelia Burroughs of Council Bluffs, a recent graduate of the Cleveland Homeopathic College; Miss Mary P. Allan, the head librarian of the Omaha Public Library; and Miss Lizzie Pennell, who taught watercolor painting to the club and was wearing a form-fitting dress in Wilde’s preferred shade of café au lait.
The Honorable James M. Woolworth, 53, helped his wife, Elizabeth, with her mink coat and handed it to the bellman, then saw me note-taking and headed over. A graduate of Hamilton College in upstate New York, he’d practiced law in Syracuse before moving to Omaha at age 27. Since then he’d fathered three children, represented state and railway interests before the United States Supreme Court, and became the first Omaha city attorney as well as chancellor for the Episcopal diocese. Woolworth was honored with a doctorate in law from Racine College, founded the Nebraska Historical Society, spoke occasionally on such topics as “The Philosophy of Emigration,” and was a major book collector of English and American classics. Wiping his small oval spectacles with his handkerchief, he asked in a spy’s whisper, “Would you happen to know if Mr. Wilde is available for dinner?”
Woolworth owned a magnificent residence on St. Mary’s Avenue and was a gracious host to many visitors of eminence, most recently King Kalakaua of Hawaii.
I told him I hadn’t heard of any plans, but that Wilde’s traveling business manager was Mr. J. S. Vail and just over there.
Woolworth scanned the dining room where Vail was flirting with Miss Pennell, and he patted my shoulder in thanks. I watched the city attorney cross to Vail, introduce himself with a card, and offer his courteous invitation. Vail’s fledgling effort at a smile failed and he said something that made Woolworth’s face fall. Woolworth spoke with concern and tilted an ear forward. Vail spoke again. Reddening with fury, Woolworth shut his back to the manager and stormed to his wife, saying as he passed me, “The scoundrel wants me to pay fifty dollars for the privilege!”
Soon after that Wilde shouted “Howdy, pardnuhs!” from the mezzanine and heard a smattering of welcoming applause that dissipated as he descended the staircase in a halting, mincing, queenly way, his mane of dark hair still tangled and wet from his bath, a lily held to his nose as his other hand squeaked in its slide along the brass balustrade. Clothed now in his valet’s high-button shoes, a charcoal bow tie, and a Wall Street sort of dull gray suit whose color, he was to insist, was that of “moonlight gleaming on Lake Erie,” Wilde was taunting Omaha’s virility by treating their accustomed business attire as the most droll of his fanciful costumes.
I scowled at his cheekiness, certain that his teasing strategy of affront and parry would not serve him with this frontier audience, and, I confess, half wishing that some man of importance would dress him down for his impudence. But most of the invitees had already entered the dining room, and the others so desperately wanted the afternoon to meet with the aesthete’s approbation that they overlooked his ridicule.
We were seated at a dais in the dining room, I on his right hand by dint of my newspaper assignment and Reverend Doherty from County Cavan on his left by dint of his blessing before the meal and his introductory remarks about their very talented guest from across the water. Three minutes into it, Wilde interrupted the Irishman by shouting, “You are so evidently, so unmistakably sincere, and worst of all truthful, that I cannot believe a word you say!”
Though many laughed, Reverend Doherty did not immediately get the joke and flushed with apology as he explained that he’d gotten all the information on Wilde from eastern newspapers.
Wilde replied, “It is a sure sign that newspapers have degenerated when they can be relied upon.”
Adopting the pretense that I was deaf, Wilde spoke so loudly throughout the luncheon that even the kitchen help could hear him, and he continually gave uncensored expression to whatever entered his mind. A Cornish hen was served to him and he held his head as he whined, “Oh why are they always giving me these pedestrians to eat?” A Merlot from California was poured and he hesitated before trying the American vintage. But after he sipped it, he thought “the hooch” quite good. “I have learnt to be cautious,” he explained. “The English have a miraculous power to turn wine into water.”
Reverend Doherty resisted when Wilde tried to refill his wineglass, smiling as he said, “I ply the caution of Juvenal: ‘A sane mind in a sound body.’”
Wilde said, “But nothing is good in moderation. You cannot know the good in anything till you have torn the heart out of it by excess.”
The dining staff removed our entrées, and I could see Wilde craved a cigarette, but with ladies present it was impossible. We overheard one of the fairer sex say to a waiter, “Would you please put that lamp out? It’s smoking.” And Wilde loudly fumed, “Lucky lamp.”
The forty luncheon guests were now ignoring each other to concentrate on hearing Wilde’s comments. Seeing that, he smiled and leaned toward me to confide, “I could deny myself the pleasure of talking, but not to others the pleasure of listening.”
I flattered myself that I was as educated as he, but I was certainly not a celebrity and neither extroverted nor witty nor especially talented, so I frankly felt honored by his intimacy and was proud to have been included as a player in his afternoon entertainment, even though I was alert to his puppetry. And, as was habitual with Wilde, what earlier seemed an Oxonian’s scorn and derision gradually began to take on the character of simple puckish joie de vivre. We know now that as he continued to court controversy this would not always be the case.
“The Poet Is Wilde. But His Poetry’s Tame.”
With the dessert course, he was requested to speak—as if he had not been speaking throughout the meal. And by then the hostilities of those he’d earlier insulted had felt the balm of his humor and charm, and when Wilde rose up it was to smiling faces. His first act was to present to the Social Art Club of Omaha his Poems, cautioning, “Books of poetry by young writers are usually promissory notes that are never paid off. But I do hope this may be an exception.” And then he talked about the book’s binding of white parchment, which he admired, and the printing on Dutch handmade paper that disappointed him, maligning one fouled page as “a curious toadstool, a malodorous parasitic growth.”
Soon many were vocalizing the desire that he actually read one of his sixty-one poems, and after some demurrals and much false-seeming embarrassment, he relented. “But I must limit it to just one, or my own artistry may so captivate me that I’ll find it impossible to stop.”
Choosing the sonnet “The Grave of Keats,” he lingeringly read:
Rid of the world’s injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God’s veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water—it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.
Whiffs of other, finer poets made his sonnet resemble a schoolboy’s plagiarism, but Wilde hung his head as if faint from his own artistry, only to be revived upon hearing enthusiastic applause. Smiling, he said, “If I may be fetchingly immodest, I congratulate you on your good taste.” Looking at the book’s page again, he said, “I feel I should provide a gloss. The sonnet was written in Rome shortly after I visited the shabby grave of John Keats, that divine English boy who died prematurely at age twenty-six. I thought of Keats as of a priest of beauty slain before his time; and a fantastical vision of Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian, my favorite painting in the whole world, suddenly appeared before my eyes. I’d just seen the picture in Genoa: a lovely, muscular, all-but-naked boy, with dark, clustering hair and red lips, bound by his evil enemies to a tree and, though cruelly pierced in the chest by arrows, lifting his divine, impassioned gaze toward the eternal beauty of the opening heavens.”
Some in his audience stirred uneasily at the shocking indecency of Wilde’s description, and I sought to rescue him by asking, “Would you tell us something of your impressions of America so far?”
Wilde turned to me and opined, “The journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read.” There was a good deal of laughter at my expense, and then he went on. “I find less prejudice and more simple and sane people in the West. But I have noticed in too many places that art has no marvel, and beauty no meaning, and the past no message. In this and other regards, Americans have really everything in common with the English—except, of course, language.”
Wilde waited out the jollity and continued, “Also, in marked contrast to England, where the inventor is generally considered crazy, in America an inventor is honored, assistance is forthcoming, and the exercise of ingenuity is here the shortest road to great wealth.”
Out of the blue, Mr. Rosewater of the Daily Bee asked, “Are you a hunter?”
“Are you asking if I gallop after foxes in the shires? Indeed not. I consider that the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”
“What about tennis?” Rosewater persisted, jotting his notes. “Cricket?”
“I hate all sport,” Wilde said. “Each requires one to assume such indecent postures.” Scanning a dining room of raised hands, he said, “Oh, I’m afraid I really must quit now. I’ll empty myself of all thought and opinion and find I’ve become electable.”
With their laughter Wilde sat, fluttering a hand in gratitude as he heard their ovation. I took the opportunity to bid my adieus and exit to my office in the Herald Building, where I spent the afternoon transcribing my shorthand notes on my Remington typewriter. At home I performed my ablutions and changed into my swallowtail and white tie, then hurried to meet Wilde and his entourage at the Withnell House.
His Earnest and Instructive Lecture
Seeing me, Wilde told his valet, “With an evening coat and a white tie, anybody, even a journalist, can gain a reputation for being civilized.”
Wilde wore a silk maroon scarf and peeping handkerchief, but was otherwise wholly in black, with a velvet smoking jacket and vest, silk breeches that reached just past his knees, snug leg hosiery, and what looked like gleaming patent leather ballet slippers faced with sizable bows. (In four years’ time F. H. Burnett would give such an outfit to his title character in Little Lord Fauntleroy.) Affecting a placid pose against the Withnell’s sculpted wainscoting, Wilde crossed his feet like a dandy, gently tilted his head, and held still for a photograph.
We strolled silently to Boyd’s Opera House, which was just a block away on the northeast corner of Fifteenth and Farnam. The opera house was gloriously ornate and effulgent, a mere six months old, could seat seventeen hundred, and was constructed at a staggering cost of ninety thousand dollars. The high society of Omaha, Lincoln, and Council Bluffs were streaming through the main entrance as Wilde slumped in a chair in his dressing room and his valet softly dusted Wilde’s bloodless face with stage makeup and rouge. Judge James W. Savage, 56, rapped the door before sauntering in, the cold, fragrant air of a March night floating off his formal coat. Shaking my hand with vigor whilst giving Wilde a sidelong glance, the judge genially announced that he would be introducing the speaker to a full house. Lest Wilde consider him unequal to the task, Savage managed to steer our fleeting conversation toward the data that he was distantly related to the English poet John Dryden; graduated from Harvard University, seventh in his class; and was associated in legal practice with Charles F. Manderson, our junior United States senator.
Quaffing a full glass of water, Wilde handed it to Traquier and said nothing as he warily stood just as the stage manager called the friendly Savage out.
We watched the judge’s histrionic introduction of “the Oxford aesthete and poet of note” from the wings. Wilde did not joke about his exaggerations, and as Savage got to his concluding paragraph, Wilde turned to me with wild eyes and held up hands that were trembling.
“Are you that nervous?”
“Dear sir, my speech is so very, very dull. Omaha will be convinced I have a coma of the mind.”
Savage finished eloquently and shook Wilde’s hand as the large Dubliner sashayed out, curtsying in gratitude for Omaha’s considerable applause, then seating himself at a Louis XV secretaire that was on loan from Lininger’s Art Gallery. The gas footlights tinctured him in golden tones, while behind him was a green-tasseled fireproof asbestos curtain with the name BOYD’S OPERA HOUSE emblazoned on it in circus lettering.
Squaring his pages, Wilde commenced by announcing his subject as “The Decorative Arts.” And then he read: “In my lecture tonight I do not wish to give you any abstract definition of beauty; you can get along very well without philosophy if you surround yourself with beautiful things; but I wish to tell you of what we have done and are doing in England to search out those men and women who have knowledge and power of design, of the schools of art provided for them, and the noble use we are making of art in the improvement of the handicraft of our country.”
House decoration, for gosh sakes! The topic was not especially inert, nor his overly inflected and cautious presentation necessarily stupefying, but his lecture was so much less clever and pungent than his amusingly insulting conversation that I wanted to shout out to the simulacrum, “Stop, Oscar! This is not you!” And then I was forced to confront the urgency of my dyspepsia. Was I afraid that he seemed foolish, or that I did? That he seemed dull, or that my high hopes of enterprise and wealth in Omaha had descended into simply holding a job? This is not you and its hundred variations had afflicted me often since this daredevil tyro made the three-week journey west to the rich possibilities of Nebraska, but there was no This is you as its complement. Amid my hearty and prosperous cohort, I felt like a poseur.
And there was Wilde no longer reading his pages to say from memory, “Do not mistake the material of civilization for civilization itself. It is the use to which we put these things that determines whether the telephone, the steam engine, or even electricity are valuable to civilization.”
The stuff was so close to the seemingly sincere editorials I was called upon to write on occasion that I found myself drifting into shorthand notes on the intricate song of his performance and the British oddities of his pronunciation: “poo-ah” for “poor,” “yee-ahs” for “years,” but also “Oma-har” for the city, and “moo-say-um” for “museum.” Wilde graphically described cheerless rows of American houses, glaring billboards, and streets that were no more than gumbos of mud, and the seventeen hundred in the audience responded with ripples of subdued laughter. But Wilde could not have been satisfied with such small beer, and as he stood at the conclusion of his talk and modestly accepted a din of applause, I noted that he seemed rattled and frail and sick of himself. Walking past me in the wings, Wilde muttered with self-loathing, “Moths were flying from my lips.”
A Throb of Joy
Wilde was in such a dismayed mood in his dressing room that I hesitated to invite him out, but he seemed only too happy to avoid an early return to the Withnell House, where perhaps the Irishry of Omaha would be waiting to hurrah him, and we two strolled alone that cold, blustery night to my humble abode on Thirteenth Street.
My lodgings were just a front room, sleeping room, and kitchen, with an outhouse in the yard. I took his turban and ankle-length coat from him and flung them onto my slovenly bed even though they reeked of stale tobacco smoke, then got out of my swallowtail coat and white tie. My four chromolithographs were hung too near the ceiling, which Wilde had flouted in his lecture, but he seemed to take no notice of them. Wilde had said that there was one article of furniture that confronted him wherever he journeyed on this continent and that “for absolutely horrid ugliness surpassed anything he’d seen—the cast-iron American stove.” I owned one that was precisely what he’d snidely described: ornamented with wreaths of grimy roses, and with a sooty smokestack shaped like a funeral urn. I found myself ill-at-ease and defensive, and it forcibly struck me that forebodings of his criticism must have stifled many friendships. But Wilde calmly looked at the stove without comment as I got a bottle of the Macallan Scotch whisky from the kitchen cabinet and filled two shot glasses. Wilde held his in both hands like a chill-slaying candle as he sipped and peered about him, mentioning no excellencies of style in the décor—hardly a surprise to me—but spying my copy of Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a book of poems whose quality he exaggerated as being greater than the sonnets of Shakespeare.
“Shall we sit?” I asked.
I filled his shot glass.
Wilde lounged on my sage-green sofa as if it were a fainting couch. Berliner’s Gramophone was not yet in manufacture, so we lacked the idylls of music as I trimmed and lighted two kerosene lamps and took a seat on my Brewster chair. Continuing in the interrogatory mode we’d earlier established, I said, “You have plans for future work, I presume?”
“For my future life, do you mean?” Wilde held a cigarette to the kerosene flame before falling back against the sofa. “Well, I’m a very ambitious young man. I want to do everything in the world. I cannot conceive of anything that I do not want to do. I want to write a great deal more poetry. I want to study painting in oils more than I’ve been able to. I want to write a great many more plays, and I want to make this artistic movement the basis for a new civilization. Are we done with the Quotidian Herald interview?”
“If you wish.”
Wilde took the liberty of filling his shot glass again. With a consoling measure of respect, he said, “Cask strength.”
“Specially ordered from a shop in Glasgow.”
Wilde stared at me for a confusing moment. “So, Bobby,” he said, “you’re not married.”
“I have a fiancée in Connecticut. She’s a trifle afraid of the West. She’s waiting for me to get more established. Or flee.”
“The hard life on the frontier,” he said. “It’s just as well. Modern women understand everything except their husbands. And where do you hail from?”
“Connecticut. Yale, actually. Were you there?”
“I have no idea. While sowing my ‘Wilde oats of aestheticism,’ I’ve been signing my letters to London ‘Somewhere and sometime.’”
“Was that a newspaper quotation?”
“Wilde oats? Certainly. And don’t forget the coming dances: ‘The Oscar Wilde Quadrille’ and ‘The Too-too Waltz.’”
“We can be cruel.”
“Oh well. Half the world does not believe in God; the other half does not believe in me.” Wilde finished his third Scotch whisky and held his shot glass out.
I filled it. Embers from his cigarette fell onto his velvet vest and he flicked them off with irritation. “Are we at all near the hideout of Jesse James?”
“Don’t know. We hear rumors he’s in or around Kansas City.” (On a Monday, two weeks hence, Jesse James would be killed by Bob Ford in Saint Joseph.)
“Americans are great hero worshippers,” Wilde said. “And you have an intriguing tendency to take your heroes from the criminal classes.”
I sought a riposte and came up empty. There was a silence in which it seemed my turn to sally forth with a conversational gambit, but my habit of stalling on such things was more than equal to the short term of his patience.
Wilde laid a hand to his forehead as if swooning and said, “The most graceful thing I ever beheld in the West was a construction worker outside the Mercantile Library in Saint Louis, Missouri, driving a new shaft of some sort with a hammer. At any moment he might have been transformed into marble or bronze and become noble in art forever.” Wilde was silent for a minute and then assessed me. “Are you an art fancier?”
“I have so little free time,” I said.
Wilde sighed with dissatisfaction. “Aren’t you the will-o’-the-wisp.”
I am abashed to admit that I felt so adrift in our colloquy I could only find the craft to top off my shot glass with whisky.
Seeing me, Wilde drank and held out his shot glass again. I indulged him. Wilde said, “I find it perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays, saying things behind one’s back that are absolutely and entirely true.”
We listened to the floor clock ticking in the quietude. Waiting for me to say something was an agony for him. So it was with a sense of emergency that I finally risked, “Would you mind an impertinence?”
Wilde softly rested an inquisitive gaze upon me.
“It’s my stab at some good advice.”
“It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.”
But I perdured. “Don’t give all these lectures,” I said. “Don’t let audiences feed on you like this. They’ll lay waste to your talent. And don’t dissemble. Even poetry is wrong for you. It feels trumped up. With your fluency and flair for humor it’s far better you concentrate on fiction and plays.”
At first Wilde seemed shocked and disturbed by my outburst, but then he smiled wryly and sat up and shook his hair free of his face. “What excellent whisky!” he said. “And how perfectly splendid of you to accompany me through this wonderfully exciting day. This is the first pleasant throb of joy I have had since Mr. Vail last took sick.”
“Only too glad to oblige,” said I. I confess with shame that the acquittal and relief I felt was greater than my frustration at his tone of farewell.
Wilde stood to his full height and tilted, slightly off balance with drink. Smiling down at me, he said, “I have discovered that alcohol taken in sufficient quantity produces all the effects of drunkenness.”
I got up as well and indicated my bookcase. “Would you like some volumes to take with you to California?” I was hoping, I suppose, to compel some contact with an international celebrity in the future.
But Wilde said, “Oh, no worry. I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”
I helped him get into his ankle-length green coat, thinking that this was my only diary moment. Oscar Wilde would be my sole claim to fame. Even marriage and children would be as nothing compared to our fifteen hours together. “We’re on Thirteenth Street,” I said. “Walk north to Harney, turn left, and the Withnell is in the second block.”
The customary expectation was that I escort my houseguest back, and my lapse in etiquette pinked his face. “I shan’t get lost,” he said. Wilde had his hand on the door handle when he halted a moment and squared toward me so that I fell back a little, fearing a fist. “Most people are other people,” he said in good-bye. “Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions. Their lives a mimicry. Their passions a quotation.”
And he was gone from me and from Omaha before I could nag him with the reminder that it was Oscar Wilde who said the first duty of life is to be as artificial as possible.
What People are saying about this
"In these pages, Nebraska - Omaha in particular - is both rendered and reappropriated, registered and riffed on through a range of tonalities." - The New York Times
"Although Hansen's historical re-creations will transport you, and his black humor is worthy of a Coen brothers movie, he is at his best when writing about what Wordsworth called "the still, sad music of humanity," such as the story of a woman caring for her Alzheimer's-inflicted husband ("The Sleepwalker"), or the boy struggling to understand his mother's death ("The Sparrow"). These stories, truthful meditations on the motions of grace in the physical world, are the real gems of the collection." - The Star Tribune
“Rich in imagery and emotion...the collection confirms Hansen as a top-notch master of the short form.” - People Magazine
Meet the Author
Ron Hansen is the author of ten novels—including Mariette in Ecstasy, Desperadoes, and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion—and two short story collections, among them She Loves Me Not. His novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He graduated from Creighton University in Omaha and went on to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop where he studied with John Irving. He is now Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in northern California.
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