Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 5

American Wildes

In September of 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan's producer, Richard D'Oyley Carte, cabled Oscar Wilde to offer him a series of lectures in the United States. Wilde cabled back his acceptance, and eventually appeared in the U.S. in January of 1882, touring the U.S. for most of that year. Perhaps initially intended by D' Oyley Carte as vehicle for reaping profits from the American interest in aestheticism (so strongly suggested by the popular success of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, then playing successfully in both England and America), Wilde was given the paradoxical opportunity to characterize and popularize the intensely reflective and individualistic aesthetic movement.

Unlike his previous trials with a publicized identity--for instance his semi-public worship of Lily Langtry or the broad publicity of Du Maurier's cartoons--Wilde now had the arduous task of attempting to elucidate his particular take on aesthetics to a popular audience familiar only with parodies of its Oxford origin, while at the same time maintaining his own identity as an authentic and unique artist. The texts in this case show moments where Wilde was either being characterized or struggling against a characterization, reflecting Wilde's ongoing self-fashioning as it played out during his American tour.


--Chatham Ewing Cabinet Photo of Oscar Wilde. New York: Sarony Studios, 1882.

William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Patience, or Bunthorne s Bride: A Comic Opera in Two Acts. New York: J.M. Stoddart, 1881.

This is the copy of the play produced by Wilde's friend and publisher J.M. Stoddart in 1881. Stoddart, it seems, profited from bothsides of the discourse on Wilde.
On January 5th, soon after Wilde arrived in New York, he attended a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan s Patience, an operetta which satirized the aesthetic movement. The main character in the play, Bunthorne, is a ridiculous young aesthete probably modeled on Wilde, and apparently the first entrance of Bunthorne on this particular night caused a theater-wide double-take as eyes moved from the stage to Wilde's box. Wilde's carefully staged encounter with this portrait of himself, his choice to openly confront this portrait and cause the double-take, defined his task in America and forced the question `Which Wilde is the real Wilde?' upon his new American audience. In the scene to which the text is opened, Bunthorne, in a soliloquy, diagnoses himself as an aesthetical huckster and reveals that his aestheticism is only a pose through which to gain fame.


Harper's Weekly, January 21 and 28, 1882.

Harper's response to Wilde's visit with its January 28, 1882, cover requires little explanation in the context of "Patience" and the publicity photographs; however, it does give a good sense of the typical reaction to Wilde's visit.

Another cartoon mocking Wilde appeared on the back page of the January 21, 1882, edition.

Walt Whitman,(1819-1892)

Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: Ferguson Brothers, 1889.
One of 300 copies of a special edition with a portrait and signed by Whitman. This copy belonged to Lionel Johnson.

This copy is signed by Lionel Johnson, a poet whose work (along with that of Wilde's) was often associated with the aestheticism of Walter Pater. Not only does this transatlantic association enrich our understanding of Bunthorne's use of the term "transcendental" in Gilbert's "Patience" but also the anxious critical reactions engendered by the poems in the "Calamus" section mirror (and perhaps foreshadow) the violent reaction against Wilde expressed by the trial.
Wilde visited Whitman during his tour. What follows is indebted to Ellmann. On January 18, 1882, Wilde and J.M. Stoddart visited Whitman at Whitman's brother's home (where he was then living) in Camden, New Jersey. After Wilde had explained that he and his friends at Oxford carried Leaves of Grass to read on their walks, the two poets sat down and shared a bottle of elderberry wine which had been brewed by Whitman's sister-in-law. Subsequently, they retired into Whitman's den for an hours long talk.

Rennell Rodd, (1858-1941)
Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf. With an Introduction by Oscar Wilde. Philadelphia: J.M. Stoddart, 1882. One of the deluxe, large paper copies.

This curious text not only reflects a sense of the text as an artifact which was perhaps influenced by Morris' Kelmscott Press, it also reflects the kind of anxiety which an association with Wilde might engender.
Though Ellmann suggests that the paper was found in a Philadelphia warehouse and was destined for use in currency, one wonders if the echoes of ironic critics haven't accidentally been confirmed as fact. The paper upon which the book is printed is very delicate and very thin; it is probably some form of rice paper. The overall effect of the rice paper,the turquoise ink, the colorful green interleaves, and the prints (such as one of a crane eating a frog) is such that the book links the aesthetic fascination with the orient with a physical realization of the delicate evanescence of aesthetic sentiment. Wilde convinced Stoddart to do a small run of these texts (175) for his friend Rennell Rodd, who had won Oxford s Newdigate prize in 1880,and the run was done by July of 1882 while Wilde was still in America. Wilde had also written an introduction for the book which set forth an aesthetic project for the "modern romantic school" which rejected Ruskin's "didactic" approach in favor of a "vital informing poetic principle." Rodd's adoption as a disciple of Wilde's, however, caused him a great deal of anxiety, as he felt that the association with Wilde's aesthetics and the revelations of his secret travels with Wilde on the continent would damage his chances at beginning a successful career in the Foreign Office. Rodd tried to have the introduction withdrawn, but failed, and soon after Wilde's return to London, Rodd ended their friendship.

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1890.

Stoddart's Lippincott's Monthly Magazine published the first authorized appearance of The Picture of Dorian Gray in America. The text was substantially changed before the first English edition.

W. F. Morse
Autograph Letter Signed
New York, April 24, 1882
To Oscar Wilde

Morse worked for D'Oyley Carte, the company which sponsored Wilde's tour of America. This letter from Morse to Wilde details arrangements for Wilde to deliver his lecture "Decorative Art" in New York in May, 1882.


Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900
Autograph Letter Signed
Boston, [1882]
To W. F. Morse

This letter from Wilde to Morse gives a glimpse into the finances of the Wilde tour.





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