- Oscar Wilde’s Un-American Tour: Aestheticism, Mormonism, and Transnational Resonance
All noble work is not national merely, but universal. The political independence of a nation must not be confused with any intellectual isolation.Oscar Wilde, “The English Renaissance in Art”
By all accounts, Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour in the US and Canada was a signal event in late-nineteenth-century transatlantic literary culture. Wilde left England as the author of one book of poetry and the object of gentle parody in the British press; he returned as an international celebrity. In the US, Wilde wrote key essays that distinguished his views from those of his intellectual mentors, John Ruskin and Walter Pater. It is utterly strange to imagine the self-styled British aesthete refining his aesthetic creed in contexts so un-British and un-aesthetic. The opening scene of Brian Gilbert’s film Wilde (1997), which shows the fancily dressed Wilde about to descend into a coal mine in Leadville, Colorado, must have caused audiences to wonder if they had wandered into the wrong theater. More remarkably, one might have begun the film with any number of surprising juxtapositions: Wilde lecturing to Mormon polygamists; Wilde chatting with Jefferson Davis; Wilde awkwardly conversing with Walt Whitman. [End Page 664]
It isn’t surprising, then, that the tour has been an object of recurring fascination. Wilde’s early biographers were intrigued by such moments, which appeared to juxtapose refined Britain and rugged America. Writing about Wilde in the first decades of the twentieth century, the English author A. J. A. Symons wrote an adoring description of Wilde’s visit that was never published; the American bibliographer Richard Glaenzer painstakingly assembled hundreds of first-hand and newspaper accounts that he planned to use to write a book on the tour.2 Glaenzer’s papers consist of more than 900 separate items (now held at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Library), documents he gathered by mail from librarians across the US. The correspondence includes responses to Wilde ranging from enthusiasm to disgust. One observer from St. Joseph, Missouri, recalled that Wilde “ate and drank enormously, which was not very aesthetic” (Kerr); another from Houston, Texas, remembered that as a boy he “had been called ‘a little Oscar Wilde’” and that later “the name & art of Oscar Wilde became almost a religion with me” (Bosworth).
If the papers are interesting for such local glimpses of how Wilde was recollected, they are equally compelling as the material residue of a desire to apprehend a transatlantic encounter by documenting its itinerary as closely as humanly possible, with Glaenzer assiduously reconstructing Wilde’s trip city by city (see Figure 1). When Glaenzer generalized about the tour in a preface to his anthology of Wilde’s writings, he described how Wilde was seen by early Wilde scholars as a barometer of essential national categories of British seriousness and American humor: “Wilde irritated England; disturbed British stolidity, conservatism and self-conceit. America he amused. American courtesy was too superficial to withstand America’s sense of humour” (xv). In 1936, Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith published the compendious Oscar Wilde Discovers America, similarly cataloging the tour in exhaustive detail, but, as reviewers recognized, their book only made it less clear what Wilde’s series of strange encounters added up to.3 More recently, scholars have used the tour to examine Anglo-American literary relations. In Jonathan Freedman’s account, the tour intervened in a moment of struggle in American high culture between old “gentry elite” and a new “caste of professionals” of taste (80, 55). Michèle Mendelssohn argues that “the tension between British and American culture is the most important aspect of transatlantic Aestheticism” (14). Brook Miller writes that “the qualities Wilde embodied as a British aesthete resonated with differences in aestheticism across the Atlantic and with the stereotypes and self-fictions held by each nation’s commentators. . . . Wilde’s trip rendered him emblematic” (21). Paul Giles reverses the assumption that aestheticism flows from England to the US; instead, he argues, the US gave aestheticism its [End Page 665] subversively commercial flavor. And Mary Blanchard (Oscar Wilde’s America: Counterculture in the Gilded...