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 Americansstill reeling from the most destructive conflict in their historyunderstood 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.
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About 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.
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.
Table of Contents
1 Too Too Utterly Utter 6
2 More Wonderful Than Dickens 26
3 Those Who Dawnce Don't Dine 49
4 What Would Thoreau Have Said to My Hat-Box! 71
5 No Well-Behaved River Ought to Act This Way 97
6 A Very Italy, Without Its Art 121
7 Don't Shoot the Pianist; He's Doing His Best 143
8 You Should Have Seen It Before the War 163
9 The Oscar of the First Period Is Dead 189
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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?