I Can Wait (Revisited)

Lotos Club New York.jpg

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

Originally published in 2015 now as rewritten for the Oscar Wilde Society newsletter. For membership go to: oscarwildesociety.co.uk/membership/

It is pleasing to see that recent Wilde studies continue to highlight the emergent nature of Oscar’s American experience, during which time he nurtured the art of public speaking, conducted his first press interviews, staged his first play, had his iconic photographs taken, and stockpiled—to use an American word—material for his future epigrams and works.

But there is a crucial American beginning for Oscar that has been under-appreciated: I refer to his first brush with literary society. It occurred during an event at 149 Fifth Avenue in New York City, the then home of an organisation of journalists known as the Lotos Club.

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

The Lotos Club was formed in 1870 and is still an active institution today for writers and critics albeit at a new location; it derives its name and original motto from Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters:


In the afternoon they came unto a land

In which it seemed always afternoon

Given this public alignment with the private leisured class, the Lotos Club evokes the type of membership institution that is equally intent upon who is not a member—although I suspect that is what exclusivity means. The club embodies Oscar’s idea of a society that is spoken about disrespectfully only by those who cannot get into it—an axiom which, alas, explains my freedom to speak disrespectfully about it. Hence the point of view that the club’s patrons pay a small fortune for the privilege of being condescended to about how to dress, how to behave, and how much to spend at the bar each month—although I suspect that is what being patronised means.

Such observations of outsider opprobrium are obligatory for Wildeans, of course, who must side with the outcast. One victim of that ilk was Oscar’s brother, Willie Wilde, whose case illustrates that the Lotos Club certainly knows how to hold a grudge against a persona non grata. Writing some 120 years later the society’s archivist gratuitously demeaned Willie’s reputation and remained uncharitable about his alcoholism, recalling how he was expelled from the club for an unpaid bar tab of $14.00 with the grudging admission that he was a Lotos member “albeit briefly”. [1]

A decade earlier, Oscar had become entangled in his own Lotos imposition which also resulted in an unbridled measure of umbrage. The 1895 memoir, A Brief History of the Lotos Club [2] referred to the episode recording that “Mr. Wilde had the bad taste to seize the opportunity to abuse the American press.” We shall see whether he did; but first we must set the stage because, as might be expected, his was altogether a more barbed and theatrical affair.

It has been a long tradition of the club to give lavish “State Dinners” to guests of honour drawn from the world of scholars, artists, writers, and political figures. The list of honorees reads like a cultural who’s-who: Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gilbert and Sullivan, Henry Irving, George M. Cohan, Andrew Carnegie, Paderewski, Richard Strauss, Robert Frost, Lloyd George, Ulysses S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, J. Edgar Hoover, Henry Fonda, Harry Truman, Leonard Bernstein, and so on into the stratosphere. Back in Oscar’s day, i.e. late October 1882, the dinner was given jointly to Charles Wyndham [3] and his brother-in-law Bronson Howard, the well-known American dramatist.

Sir Charles Wyndham 1837-1919 (Wikipedia)

Wilde knew Wyndham, of course. Early in his life Wyndham had spent two years working as a surgeon during the American Civil War, and he returned to New York in 1882 where Wilde got to know him. Earlier in the year Wilde had already attended one celebratory brunch for Wyndham at the Hotel Dam, so as a visiting celebrity in town, and as a temporary denizen of the Lotos, Oscar understandably found himself alongside Wyndham and Howard at the State Dinner.

The evening began inauspiciously. Seated between the twin honorees was the president of the club at the time: the New-York Tribuneeditor, Whitelaw Reid, with whom Wilde had already failed to find favour on his 1882 tour. He wrote about this 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 did not augur well, as the room was full of similarly minded men of the press who had ridiculed Oscar and his aesthetic posturing all year long. [4]

That posturing had been Wilde’s obligation to pose as the real-life Bunthorne from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, in which guise the effete and clean-shaven embodiment now sat alongside austere and bearded men of old New York. Oscar’s Gilbertian ambiguity clearly left one fellow guest at the top table in Topsy-turvydom. In a letter to the Tribune the confused guest described Oscar 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”. [5]

Despite the androgynous elephant in the room, a pleasant two-hour dinner ensued, and, following formalities by the principals, several prominent guests were invited to give after-dinner speeches. It came the turn of Oscar to speak. Despite the evident animosity surrounding him Oscar rose, but not to the bait. One guest at his table said he was “cultivated, and pleasant”; indeed he remained his “courteous and well-poised” self. This seems to chime with Oscar’s penchant of being, publicly at least, philosophical about the slings and arrows—until, presently, he calmly took arms against a sea of journalists.

Oscar began engagingly by expressing his gratitude for being able to give “permanent employment to many an ink-stained life”. [6] At this point the previously bewildered guest began to buy into the brotherhood of the homely girl. He lyrically illustrated how Wilde “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”.

Despite being “coughed down”, Oscar displayed “a delicate fancy and a lively wit” going on to complain about the newspapers’ “fog of misrepresentation” about him. Warming to his theme, as the The Printing Times and Lithographer confirmed, Wilde was “not without the power of revenge” as he attacked the artistic sensibilities of the common scribe:

“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.” [7]

The young Oscar proceeded with “a seeming satisfaction with himself” but, schooled in French literature as he was, Wilde was circumspect enough to know what Eugène Sue had first memorialized: that revenge is best taken cold. [8] So it was with an air of foreboding that he delivered his coup de grâce. Conveying a command of censure beyond his years, he cautioned the one hundred and fifty members present with these words:

Whatever is false will vanish; whatever is permanent will remain. I am patient, and I can wait. [5]

As it turned out Bunthorne’s Patience lasted longer than Oscar’s. Less than a month after escaping from America, Oscar was asked about “having created a sensation at the Lotos Club”. Lounging against the mantelpiece of Raleigh House while attending a smoking concert, his response to a reporter and the assembled guests was an expiation on journalists’ incompetent sensationalizing; their minimum amount of brains; and their disregard for truth and decency. Then, as if to contrast himself with prosaic newspapermen, Wilde finished poetically: “They do lots of big things, but nothing is rounded in and completed. They are loose and flying like a silken scarf torn and waved by unsteady hands.” [9]

So began Wilde’s tortuous history with his journalistic peers, or as he came to describe them in medieval terms, the rack. And yet, this is hindsight and we should not get ahead of Oscar. We should heed the sage who said: “What is now in the past was once in the future.” It is a dictum that Matthew Sturgis was mindful of when producing his recent life of Oscar, which in one sense can be read as a real-time chronology. As that author explained, it was a constant challenge to chart events as Wilde experienced them, rather than through the lens of his later legend. But is not a truth in biography that whose opposite is also true?—to paraphrase Oscar’s maxim about art. If so, consider the constant challenge it must have been for Oscar to build that legend by degrees of daily experience.

Taken on these terms, we can read his rebuking of his detractors as a spirited and prophetic act of self-determinism. In the void of time he was positing himself as a critical artist that the world would not appreciate for a hundred years. At the time he was 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 realised in retrospect, and Oscar did not have that luxury.

So it is to the legend we return to discover whether society’s wait for Wilde’s warning to the Lotos Club has paid off. Surely, in the celebration of the author into another century we find the mark of permanence; just as in a search for all the columnists and hacks, reporters and critics, who derided Oscar that night in 1882, we find the false have vanished.

© John Cooper


NOTES

[1] The Lotos Club Newsletter, January 2011, p3.

[2] A Brief History of the Lotos Club, John Eldurkin, Press of Macgowan & Slipper, (1895).

[3] Sir Charles Wyndham (1837-1919), born Charles Culverwell, became a friend to Oscar Wilde. He was the long-time actor/manager at the Criterion Theatre in London, which held the original contract to stage Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, before it was transferred to George Alexander at the St. James’ Theatre. In 1889 he founded his own Wyndham’s Theatre in London and was knighted for his services to the stage in 1902.

[4] The New-York Tribune editor, Whitelaw Reid later published Wilde’s essay The Philosophy of Dress and his short story The Canterville Ghost.

[5] John Paul On Oscar Wilde: A Certain After-Dinner Speech, New-York Tribune, November 5, 1882, 3. ‘John Paul’ was a pseudonym of American poet, author and journalist Charles Henry Webb.

Clipping relevant to Wilde quotation:

[6] New-York Tribune, November 29, 1882, 2

[7] Wilde’s allusions were to cheap prints (chromo-lithographs) in shop windows; cigar store Indians; and the most rudimentary structure in town. (The Printing Times and Lithographer, December 15, 1882)

[8] Memoirs of Matilda, Eugène Sue, translated 1846.

[9] The Times (Philadelphia, PA), January 28, 1883, 2.

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).

4 thoughts on “I Can Wait (Revisited)”

  1. I read this in the newsletter with interest. Would you mind confirming which article the quote in bold comes from? I’m compiling a list for my Wilde tweet bot and it’s always nice to include something ‘new’.

    Like

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