One of the more fascinating periods in Oscar Wilde's short life was his year-long lecture tour of America in 1882 when he was 27. So it's nice to have an entire book devoted to that time--Declaring His Genius
by Roy Morris, Jr. Wilde had done little to merit attention at this point--he'd published a small and decidely minor book of verse and written an unproduced and not very good historical play. But he had become a celebrity.
He moved to London as a young man and before long was a local character. As the story goes, while walking down the street he heard someone exclaim "there goes that bloody fool Oscar Wilde" to which he noted "It is extraordinary how soon one gets known in London." He became the face of the burgeoning aesthetic movement (not that he founded it or was its leader), and as such was regularly parodied in the press. His greatest notoriety came came from Gilbert and Sullivan's highly popular Patience
, with its character the poet Reginald Bunthorne, who "walked down Picadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand."
touring the colonies, why not send the real Bunthorne? So Wilde was booked on a tour that would ultimately take him to 140 cities, including almost every major metropolis in the U.S. and Canada, and quite a few of the smaller towns.
He had an hour-long lecture on the British artistic renaissance and another on the home beautiful. Instead of the wit of Gilbert and Sullivan, or even of later Wilde, he apparently gave a fairly straightforward talk. He had a sing-songy voice and read his speech (at first, anyway). In fact, he often got bad reviews and many audiences were bored. But, if nothing else, the curiosity factor made the tour an overall success.
Even if the lecture wasn't always riveting, he didn't necessarily disappoint. He often appeared in his flamboyant costume--a cloth hat with flowing locks underneath, a fur-lined green overcoat, a gaudy tie, knee breeches and silk stocking. His reputation preceded him (as did performances of Patience
) and at Harvard a bunch of undergraduates loudly entered fiften minutes after the scheduled start of the lecutre and conspicuously sat in the front rows, dressed as Wilde and carrying lilies (or was it sunflowers?). This and other types of mockery often attended him in later talks.
His visits to each town excited great interest in the press, who interviewed him at every stop. Some of his lines became famous. The most famous, echoed in the title of the book--Wilde telling a custom official he had nothing to declare but his genius--probably never happened, but Wilde was more than happy to let people think it did. He also stated about his voyage that he'd found the Atlantic disappointing--so someone wrote a letter to a paper saying he found Wilde disappointing, signed, the Atlantic Ocean.. He also said Niagara Falls was one of the earliest disappoinments of American married life. In fact, his sharp tongue often got him into trouble. In every town he'd be given a tour, and while generally gracious, was free with his opinions. In Chicago he didn't like the Water Tower, which made the town fathers unhappy--it had only just been built after the great fire and is still a symbol of the city. (I agree with Oscar here. It doesn't really fit in and never has.)
He seemed most impressed with the West. There was the vastness, which made America seem like its own world. And there was the openness of the people, compared to the East, which was like an imitation Europe. And though he was an aesthete, he showed in Colorado that he could drink miners under the table.
Along the way, he met quite a few celebrities, many more established than he--fellow poets Whitman and Longfellow, not to mention Henry James and Jefferson Davis. Unfortunately, he missed Mark Twain, who was in the South when Wilde was in the North and in the North when Wilde was in the South. (They probably passed each other on the Mississippi, but there wasn't so much as a wave.)
The tour was remunerative, and, for all the caricatures of Wilde in the press, helped establish him. But really at this point he had little to say. He might have tried to explain what the aesthetic life was, but neither his views nor his overall philosophy was very deep (and probably never became so). Really it amounted to little more than an affected if well-spoken young man making pronouncements on beauty, both artifical and natural, that few were going to take seriously. But it was a useful training ground for the work he'd soon be doing.
Wilde was generally fond of America and lectured on his impressions when he returned to Britain. It was a detour in the life of a man searching for his milieu. It provided what he wanted--notoriety, though he'd soon get more of that than he could handle.
Morris's book is short, but even then padded, with long asides on characters Wilde meets, and Morris's 21st century opinions on 19th century politics. Still, it's nice to have a big land opened up before us, just as it was for Wilde.