Closer Readings Commentary

Oscar Wilde in America: “Nothing to Declare Except My Genius”

“America is not a country; it is a world.”

So declared the 27-year old Oscar Wilde back in 1882, during an interview for the newspaper The Cleveland Leader. Wilde would know. From January to November of 1882, he undertook a massive lecture tour of the country, travelling from the mightiest cities of the Northeast to the tiniest frontier towns of the Southwest. Thanks to his humor and style, Wilde’s tour proved a roaring success and the young Anglo-Irishman became something of a celebrity in nineteenth-century America. Like modern celebrities, he was a popular topic for the press; he was praised, criticized, gossiped about, and even used to advertise clothing!

Chronicling Americasponsored jointly by the NEH and the Library of Congress, allows an exciting glimpse at Wilde’s tour and the press coverage surrounding it. Its huge database of historic newspapers from 1836 to 1923 lets us return right to the source and read about Wilde just as his audience would have.

In 1882, Wilde was just barely out of Oxford (he received a double first in Greats and Classics) and ten years away from writing many of the plays and stories for which the modern world remembers him. Nevertheless, he was already famous in the United Kingdom for his outrageous costumes and razor-sharp wit. His flippant bon mots — “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue China” — and extravagant parties firmly established him as a presence in London social life. British tabloids loved him as well, caricaturing his long hair and velvet frock coats, and circulating outrageous rumors that he ate flowers for breakfast.

In fact, Wilde was already so well known that Gilbert and Sullivan produced a musical, Patience, which achieved massive success by poking fun at him and other artists, most notably James McNeil Whistler. Whistler and Wilde were both proponents of Aestheticism, an artistic movement emphasizing “art for art’s sake.” The Aesthetes rejected the traditional notion that art needed a moral or political message and instead urged that it be judged on aesthetic merit alone. They also argued that the trivial and artificial often surpassed the supposedly “natural” in terms of beauty, which helps to explain Wilde’s fixation on blue china. 

When Gilbert and Sullivan began preparing an American production of Patience, their manager, Richard D’Oyly Carte, invited Wilde to drum up support by conducting a four-month lecture of North America. Wilde seized the opportunity, quickly dashing off lectures about Aestheticism and interior design, and cobbling together a new wardrobe from costume shops around London. 

The American tour and the American press

Ironically, Wilde’s lectures were the least popular part of the tour. According to the Omaha Daily Bee, they were “disappointing,” “tame,” and “confusing” affairs. Even Wilde himself admitted that he was a dry, monotonous public speaker. But if Wilde the lecturer was a flop, Wilde the icon proved a smash hit with American audiences. His charm, intelligence, and style won over Americans across the country. In New York he was called the “darling of Fifth Avenue,” and became the guest of honor at countless parties and dinners. Way out in Colorado, the frontier miners found him just as lovable, and he spent many a night the saloons, drinking and telling stories. Wilde even managed to arrange a private meeting with Walt Whitman, whom he regarded as the greatest living poet (Whitman, apparently, was just as taken with Wilde).

It is a testament to Wilde’s status as a pop icon that American newspapers were filled with advertisements promising Oscar Wilde-style clothing and accessories. For instance, an ad in the St. Paul Daily Globeurges women to come and see the “new Oscar Wilde collars,” which it describes as “too utterly utter” (one of Wilde’s signature catchphrases). Meanwhile, one ad in the South Kentuckian promotes the “Most Aesthetic” stock of “Wilde Clothing” in the city. But the Louisiana-based Lake Charles Echo takes the cake for publishing an entire story just listing details about the new suits Wilde purchased in New York.                                                  

In many ways, Wilde set the template for modern celebrity culture — he was one of the first people simply famous for being famous. As he announced to the customs official when he first arrived in New York, he had “nothing to declare except [his] genius.” But even in 1882, Wilde’s emphasis on paradox and irony hinted at a real substance informing his shallowness. As his career continued, Wilde took the linguistic panache which so captivated America and redeployed it as the backbone of his artistic output. The plays and stories that followed — from the scandalous Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) to the delightful Importanceof Being Earnest (1895) — all bear the same air of studied triviality.

Along with foreshadowing his future success, Wilde’s popularity with Americans also opens up exciting windows onto the state of Gilded Age American culture. Why were nineteenth-century Americans so drawn to Wilde? Of course he was funny, but a lot of people are funny. Was it his sense of individualism? His Aesthetic philosophy? Perhaps they were taken with his uniquely British sensibilities.  

There are many online and print resources that students may consult when considering these issues, including the following:

Look forward to EDSITEment's new student Launchpad on language and theme in The Importance of Being Earnest. And, for more on James McNeil Whistler, Wilde’s friend and fellow Aesthete, head over to our feature on the PBS documentary James McNeill Whistler & the Case for Beauty. 

Finally, students curious about the history of literary humor in America should also check out our lesson plan on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and American literary humor.