I Can Wait

Lotos Club New York.jpg

Oscar Wilde’s After-Dinner Rebuke to his Press Critics

Yesterday was December 27th, the date on which Oscar Wilde set sail from New York to conclude his 12-months stay in America.

So as the year ends, it seems appropriate to examine how Oscar might have reflected on his lecture tour, no doubt weighing the risk he had taken with his literary reputation for the sake of financial gain. In particular, to what extent the  ridicule of the press affected his personal appraisal of the tour.

My view is that just as the commercial failure of a single lecture might have been assuaged by its critical success, so the commercial success of the whole was probably undermined by its critical failure.

These twin axes of acceptance/rejection, art/life, formed an irregular shape in 1882, but it was a motif that would be replicated throughout his life to form a pattern. Thus, commentators often describe Wilde’s American experience as if it were one element of the design. The assumption being that because it was part of a planned destiny, he would not have taken the nature of his beastly treatment seriously. After all, wasn’t being natural simply a pose?

This analysis has a surface truth for we know it caused Wilde to end his pose and draw a veil over ‘Oscar of the first period’.

If it is true that Oscar could be philosophical about the slings and arrows of fortune (provided that his fame was being served, perhaps), it should be remembered that no one is immune to personal attack—especially a character such as Oscar Wilde whose emotional immaturity has been well outlined by Ashley H. Robins. [1]

Clearly, Oscar had been naive in assuming he could still be taken seriously if he attached himself to the bandwagon of Patience, the very vehicle of his parody. But naivety is a fault only realized in retrospect. At the time, how much did the humiliation affect the 28 year-old?

We can judge his reaction from a rarely recorded event that occurred towards the end of the year, and one which, I believe, has never been fully reported.

The Lotos Club, 149 Fifth Avenue at 21st Street.
Lotos Notes

The event took place at the Lotos Club, a literary and journalistic organization in New York City: the type of place that panders to members concerned more with who is excluded than who is included, provided they are prepared to pay a small fortune for the condescension of rules about how to dress, how to behave, and how much to spend at the bar. Although, perhaps I should not speak disrespectfully about society because, as Oscar pointed out, only people who cannot get into it do that.

But what I can say is that the Lotos Club knows how to hold a grudge. One such outcast was Oscar’s brother, Willie Wilde, about whose alcoholism the club’s archivist some 120 years later (January 2011 newsletter, p3.), was still somewhat uncharitable, recalling how he was expelled for an unpaid bar tab of $14.00, sniffily accepting he was a Lotos member “albeit briefly”.

The club’s name, like its motto, which is appropriate for the leisurely seclusion of a gentleman’s club, comes from Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters:

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon

It is a tradition of the club to give “State Dinners” to guests of honor. The list of historical recipients reads like a cultural who’s-who, and includes a dinner in late October 1882 given jointly to Charles Wyndham and his brother-in-law Bronson Howard, the well-known American dramatist, to which Oscar Wilde was invited. (Wyndham knew Wilde of course—more on that here).

The president of the club at the time was New York Tribune editor, Whitelaw Reid, with whom Wilde had already failed to find favor. He wrote about his disappointment to the English lawyer, and family acquaintance, George Lewis: ‘Your friend Whitelaw Reid to whom I brought two letters of introduction, has not been very civil—in fact has not helped me in any way at all”.  The fact that Reid was the toastmaster of proceedings on this particular evening was not an auspicious portent to what followed.

Charles Wyndham

After the two-hour dinner there were formalities by the principals, and then several prominent guests were invited to give after-dinner speeches. It came the turn of Oscar to rise.

He was young, long-haired and clean-shaven in an era of aging, august and bearded men. One guest seated at Wilde’s table was clearly confused, later describing him in a letter to the Tribune [2] as “a great homely girl—one of those girls whose brother is sure to be good-looking, and who would be good-looking herself had she been born a boy”.

Despite the evident animosity surrounding him, Oscar was his usual, “cultivated and pleasant”, “courteous and well-poised” self. He alluded to the newspapers’ “fog of misrepresentation” of him as he complained about his treatment at the hands of the press. Despite being “coughed down”, Oscar retained, “a delicate fancy and a lively wit; he deprecated very amusingly the quality of his critics, and from the heights of the moral stepladder which he dexterously mounted let fall upon them most cunningly a finely-sifted snow of satire”.

The Printing Times and Lithographer admitted Wilde was “not without the power of revenge” as he attacked the sensibilities of journalists:

“whose ideas of painting had been evidently derived from the chromos in the stationers’ shop windows; their ideas of sculpture from the figures in front of the tobacconists’ shops, and their ideas of architecture from the local gaol.” [3]

Cigar Store Indian


It was to be expected that the club memoir, A Brief History of the Lotos Club (John Eldurkin, Press of Macgowan & Slipper, 1895) recorded that “Mr. Wilde had the bad taste to seize the opportunity to abuse the American press.”  But from our perspective the speech does demonstrate that Oscar felt strongly enough to stand up to his detractors who had parodied him so mercilessly.

The coup de grâce was his closing remark which shows, schooled in French literature as he was, that he was also circumspect enough to know what Eugène Sue’s Memoirs of Matilda, (translated 1846) had first memorialized: that revenge is best eaten cold.

With calm foreboding, and “a seeming satisfaction with himself,” the young Oscar displayed a command of censure well beyond his age when he cautioned the one hundred and fifty members present:

Whatever is false will vanish; whatever is permanent will remain. I am patient, and I can wait.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience may have been a bugbear for Wilde in 1882. But Wilde’s patience has proved to be the long term bête noire for his detractors. He was right to wait. As we continue to celebrate a great author through the turn of another year, through the advance of another century, how gratifying it is to know that not one of the scribes who pilloried Wilde that year has a following today.


[1]  Ashley H. Robins, Oscar Wilde — The Great Drama of His Life: How His Tragedy Reflected His Personality, Apollo Books, 2012.
[2] John Paul On Oscar Wilde: A Certain After-Dinner Speech,  New York Tribune, November 5, 1882, 3
[3] Source.


POSTSCRIPT

In fairness to The New York Tribune editor, Whitelaw Reid, it was noted at the time that his manner had been refreshing, and he turned Wilde’s remarks into a subject of general mirth. Reid later published Wilde’s essay The Philosophy of Dress and his short story The Canterville Ghost.

Published by

John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

3 thoughts on “I Can Wait”

  1. John, that was a terrific piece. Congrats. I don’t recall the Lotus story, but that is definitely an apt summary to the whole of Oscar’s 1882.

    Have you done something on his ill-fated gambling episode? Did this not involve a Drexel offspring -the fleecer to Wilde as the fleecee?

    For me Oscar defies the notion that one is either lucky at love or lucky with money; never likely to have both. Perhaps less rare, but I would argue that Wilde was cursed with poor luck on both counts.

    Happy New Year my friend.

    ww

    From: “Oscar Wilde In America :: Blog” <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: “Oscar Wilde In America :: Blog” <comment+lgd9_u9p9z_eb0cyk-omm-w@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Monday, December 28, 2015 at 12:08 PM To: Walter Walker <wwjwalker@comcast.net> Subject: [New post] I Can Wait

    John Cooper posted: ” Oscar Wilde’s After-Dinner Rebuke to his Press Critics Yesterday was December 27th, the date on which Oscar Wilde set sail from New York to conclude his 12-months stay in America. So as the year ends, it seems appropriate to examine how Oscar might “

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Walter—it’s been too long.

    Of course I know the “bunco” story but don’t attach too much significance to it, so no, I haven’t done a piece about it. On the other hand, if Wilde was “unlucky’ in love, and money, and choice of friends, including a fake-Drexel, then that might mean something.

    Like

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