I recently gave a talk on the subject of Oscar Wilde and the sunflower to the good people of the Maryland Agriculture Resource Council at their Sunflower Soirée, a yearly festival devoted to the Helianthus annuus. Literally, an annual event.
Between you and me, it was a wonderful occasion; but as there was a gloomy weather forecast I choose to focus on the portent to a poignant moment.
Dark clouds at outdoor events have a tendency to shrink both audiences and sunflowers alike. Consequently, I found myself addressing three rows of cautious faces amid three acres of bowed heads. “They looked better last week”, my host reassured me, probably referring to the flowers not the heads. But drooping heads or not, I was undeterred.
Oscar and sunflowers are a valid conjunction because perhaps no figure in history has been associated with a single flower as closely as Oscar Wilde was associated with the sunflower in 1882, when he visited the flower’s native America for the entire year.
I spoke to them of all things sunflower: of helios and anthos, of motifs and movements, and love sick maidens. Of nymphs in Greece, Vincent Van Gogh and of delicate exotic seeds when the bloom is gone. The talk was well received.
Later we retired to a musical reception by over by the sunflower fields. It was a colorful event: green salad and jazzy blues followed my purple prose and, in defiance of a sunless sky, my display of illustrations and the wine provided a hint of yellow. And then the weather closed in.
The heavy cloud oppressed. I recalled Oscar’s similar traveling experience in Kansas. For it was there that, he too, had met with foul weather and meager audiences, and after all, Kansas is the Sunflower State.
Oscar Wilde’s Reception in Kansas
One might have thought that the shared symbolism of the sunflower would have made Kansans sympathetic to the aesthetic. But Oscar’s oeuvre was to prove problematic, not emblematic.
In Topeka he addressed a “fifty dollar house,” which would indicate fewer than a hundred people. He would later observe that any man can make a speech before a thousand people, but it requires nerve to lecture to empty benches.
In Leavenworth his visit began badly when he was accosted by a drunk for the amusement of a crowd at the Union Depot. Later, at the Opera House, the press described how he had “lectured to and bored” a “small and uninterested” audience.
It was then that the weather turned foul, and in Lawrence “the state of the atmosphere…kept many away from his lecture,” said the local paper.
The clouds followed him to Atchison as the Daily Champion reported, “It rained; the streets were full of yellow mud; White Clay [a local creek] rolled a torrent of murky water; everything was sulky and dirty” and an audience of only thirty, “braved the darkness and the storm” to attend Wilde’s lecture, although the Globe was generous enough to inflate that number to forty-three—if one included the door-tenders, the ushers, the man who was snoring, and the janitor.
It was also reported that the lecture of the ass-thete had been advertised in the streets that morning by “a dilapidated little burro, [small donkey] wearing on either side a large placard, with the words ‘I lecture at Corinthian Hall to-night.'” Oscar was described as “disgusted” by his reception, and the local paper agreed there “was nothing beautiful” in Atchison for him.
But also in Atchison there appeared an admirable dose of Midwest common sense addressed to Oscar in an article  which was critical of his false manner and dress, as well as his poor diction. It also gave an honest appraisal of the merits or otherwise of his lecture and ended with some prescience:
“Mr Wilde should dress like a gentleman, cut his hair, learn to speak plain, stop calling everything ‘lovely’ and ‘joyous,’ or ‘stoopid’ and ‘dreadful’ and so convince the world of the existence of the good stuff there really is in him, buried beneath a heavy weight of idle affectation.
All the while the foreboding sky
Meanwhile, back at the Sunflower Soirée the only heavy weight was the night closing in, and as I recovered from my reverie I found people were now drifting away.
The darkening sky dripped single drops of a size that could only mean much worse was about to come, and eventually I found myself alone except for unthought thoughts, an undead sky, and a generously unfinished carafe of the golden liquid.
It was a heady mix and I forgot there can be a mournful moment under the growing weight of the weather and the glowing warm of the wine, when a poetic soul may be prey to suggestion.
The moment melded into a melancholy reminder that the sunflower state’s rebuke and ridicule of Wilde was a theme that would haunt the poor man to the grave.
I was drawn again to the fading rows of sunflowers which were now a haunting silhouette. This was a dangerously symbolic place where the wilting blooms were a thousand Oscars and the swaying fields were a Birnam Wood. Their hushed chorus through the gloom to this latter-day apostle of the sunflower was an echo of cruelty to a kindred spirit in times gone by.
I dared dwell no longer. I left the worrisome weather to brood alone upon Oscar’s folly and fate, and, as I turned to cross the field on my lonely walk back to the light, as Evelyn Waugh put it somewhere, the granite sky wept.
 “Matters and Things” in The Atchison Daily Champion, April 23, 1882.
—The image at the top of this article was used as the cover of the book Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde In North America, by Roy Morris, Jr. For my review see here.
—The picture used in connection with the Kansas lectures is of Commercial Street, Atchison.
—Read the Kansas Historical Society publication Oscar Wilde In Kansas (1981) by Charles Harmon Cagle.