Narragansett Pier

—A Newly Discovered Lecture—

In verifying Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour of North America, it was prudent to begin with the four published itineraries by Mikhail, Ellmann, Page, and Beckson. [1]

Unfortunately, none of these chronologies agrees with any other, and each is either incomplete or wrong in various respects—so it has been necessary to make numerous additions and corrections to dates, locations and lecture titles. [2]

It is a pleasing break to the routine when one discovers something new, such as a previously unrecorded event. Or, rarer still, a previously unknown lecture, as was the case with the redefining of Wilde’s final stop of the tour in New York on November 27, 1882.

Now another new lecture has emerged: it is an appearance by Wilde at Narragansett Pier.

Where is Narragansett Pier?—you might ask.

Narragansett is a town in Rhode Island named for an Algonquian American Indian tribe. It occupies a narrow strip of land running along the Western bank of Narragansett Bay—and Narragansett Pier is its seaside village outpost.

I was visiting Newport, which lies within Narragansett Bay on Aquidneck Island, so I decided to stop off at Narragansett Pier before crossing the bridge to Newport, as I had read that Oscar Wilde expressed a liking for the place, and I wanted to see it for myself.

I assumed, naturally enough, that he must have been there, but I was not sure whether he had lectured there. The suspicion had arisen from two brief notes in newspaper society columns: one said he would “entertain the visitors at Narragansett Pier next week”, and another (published a week later) confirmed that he lectured there “last night”.

Although this evidence is scant it is fairly definitive, especially as these indications were independently made and separated by hundreds of miles. A chronicler would be satisfied with such corroboration; but the researcher needs details.

First, let us place the lecture in the context of Wilde’s year in America.

When Oscar concluded his tour of the South at Richmond, VA, he had exhausted both himself and his current itinerary of pre-arranged lectures.

He returned to New York, from where he traveled, with Sam Ward, up to Newport and, after speaking at the Casino on July 15, he did not lecture again for the remainder of the month.

It was time for a well-earned vacation taking in the Summer watering places of the North-East.

In the next two weeks he visited Long Beach, Long Island from where much intrigue has flowed following a chance meeting during his visit.

He spent three days pleasure yachting with Robert Roosevelt (Theodore’s uncle), calling in at various coastal resorts such as Babylon, NY.

Then, after meeting the actress Clara Morris at Riverdale in New York, he returned to the shore at Long Branch, New Jersey, where he spent the night with former president Ulysses S. Grant.

Finally he popped up to Peekskill, NY to visit Henry Ward Beecher, the preacher.

During this period, it appears that Wilde was now, at least partially, free of the arrangements made by his tour manager.

Yet, although Wilde needed the rest, he did not lose sight of the opportunity to earn money. For it appears that while visiting the resorts he, along with his influential host Sam Ward, made arrangements for future lectures at several of the hotels, including at Long Beach, Long Branch, Babylon, (and now, we discover, Narragansett Pier). This staggered approach of visit and return, has given rise to some misinformation among previous chroniclers of Wilde’s Summer schedule who tend to have him in the right place but at the wrong time.

The confusion is understandable given the less fervent press coverage of Wilde’s movements during the more relaxed Summer season and, a generally waning interest in the Oscar fad. Further, the schedule has remained elusive because the newspaper archives of many of these small towns have not yet been digitized. Some still exist, but only on microfilm (reels) or microfiche (flat sheets).

Enter the Narragansett historical community.

With their help I was been able to establish the details of Wilde’s lecture in Narragansett Pier, which took place at the Mathewson Hotel.

Oscar was well-liked. The Narragansett Times described his talk as, “an eloquent, well-sustained plea for art in the household.” Afterwards, “he walked leisurely though the rooms of the house, and the ladies indulged themselves in a ‘good look’ at him.”

Apparently the fervor had not died down. Indeed, it still has not. All this talk of Wilde has excited local historians, and an ‘Oscar Wilde in Narragansett’ program is planned for next Summer to mark the anniversary of the lecture.

So the Newport prophesy is maintained—his truth is marching on—and no doubt I’ll be going back next year to celebrate.

© John Cooper, 2018

Here are some further details that are not on the linked page.

[1] Previous itineraries:

Mikhail, E. H., ed. Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections.  2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1979.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton; New York: Knopf, 1987.
Page, Norman. An Oscar Wilde Chronology. Houndmills: MacMillian; Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. [re-prints and credits Ellmann but differs in two respects]
Beckson, Karl E., ed. The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia. New York: AMS Press, 1998.

[2] In addition to the verified list, to demonstrate the evolution of scholarship and as a frame of reference and comparison, there is also a checklist format to show the previously published itineraries side-by-side with the list in progress.

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