A New Earliest Example of
Wilde’s ALLEGED Remark:
—I have nothing to declare except my genius.—
In my latest post I referenced the godfather of Oscar Wilde researchers, Stuart Mason, in connection with his unique scrapbooks of Wilde ephemera.
“Stuart Mason” was, in fact, the pseudonym of Christopher Sclater Millard, who produced Wilde’s first, and finest, bibliography, a decade-long study he conducted alongside many other Wildean pursuits including authoring Wilde books, being his staunch defender, and sharing his experience as a fellow victim of state-sanctioned homophobia and imprisonment. He was also, crucially to our story, at one time the private secretary to Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross, in whose circle he was intimately entangled.
One of Millard’s projects in 1910 was to produce, with the assistance of Ross, a small volume entitled The Oscar Wilde Calendar. A Quotation from the works of Oscar Wilde for every day in the year with some unrecorded sayings selected by Stuart Mason.
It is difficult now, with an over-abundance of real and imaginary Wilde quotations, to appreciate that back in 1910, a book of Oscar Wilde quotations was not only a novel idea, it was a necessary one. The majority of these now famous Wilde sayings would have been new to most people fifteen years after Wilde was airbrushed from society.
Ross, meanwhile, was on a charm offensive to rehabilitate Oscar’s reputation, and this little book would help to amuse the public and fill a literary gap. In this respect, it is worth noting that the Calendar is also symbolic as the first appearance in print of two pictures: the last live image of Oscar Wilde taken in Rome in 1900, and a photograph of the painting of Wilde by Harper Pennington.
Returning to our purpose, however, this little Calendar is important because it provides a new earliest example of the remark Wilde dubiously made at New York Customs: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
And therein lies a story.
Nothing To Declare
One of the most celebrated quotations by anyone is the remark attributed to Oscar Wilde at New York Customs at the start of his lecture tour of America in 1882.
It has always seemed to me that the alleged remark was suspiciously convenient: made in response to a question too easily enjoined, and at the most opportune moment for publicity when Wilde was entering America. Besides, it would have been out of character for Wilde, particularly at that time, to be publicly arrogant.
So what is the origin of the quotation?
Until my research some years ago the earliest source typically cited (if a source was given at all) was Frank Harris‘ Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1916), Vol. 1, Chap. V. For example, this is the one given in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1999) p. 819, and in Beckson.
However, in 2002, I identified an allusion to the remark in a book published four years earlier than Harris. This was Oscar Wilde A Critical Study by Arthur Ransome, 1912, p. .64. [Mason 666]
So we moved to Ransome and pondered his source. As he wasn’t even alive at the time of the alleged remark and never met Wilde, it is no surprise that there is no source given.
Significantly, however, his 1912 Critical Study was written with the assistance and support of Robert Ross who had generously allowed Ransome access to Wilde’s correspondence. Ross’s influence is apparent throughout the text such as the example above where Ransome cites a Wilde lecture ’Art and the Handicraftsman’, which was never a title used historically but was one created by Ross for his Complete Works some years earlier (see Lecture Titles). There are other instances of such guidance, but perhaps it is sufficient to dispel any doubt about Ross’s influence to realize that Ransome dedicated the book to him.
In any event, we can dismiss Ransome (1912) as an original source because we now have an earlier example in the Oscar Wilde Calendar (1910), but it is worth invoking the Ransome source because its successor, again, bears Ross’s fingerprints.
The sayings in The Oscar Wilde Calendar are described as having been “selected by Stuart Mason”, i.e. by Millard, as editor—but in an endnote to the book Millard specifically asserts that for many of the traditional Oscar Wilde quotations—meaning those not taken from books or manuscripts—he was indebted to Robert Ross.
The New York Customs remark is one such “tradition”—but actually how traditional was it?
There is no contemporary evidence for the remark from 1882 when it was allegedly made, although several of Wilde’s other remarks were seized upon by the press at the time and widely, often immediately, reported.
Nor does Wilde mention it in more than a hundred interviews given by him to American journalists in 1882, many soon after his arrival where he was usually quoted. Neither does Wilde make any reference to the remark in any of the more than 1500 letters of his that survive, including early examples from New York that are often detailed.
When Wilde died in November, 1900, it did not take long for the first biography to be published. This was: Oscar Wilde; the story of an unhappy friendship, (1902) by his devoted friend Robert Sherard. The biography also does not mention the incident, yet it does report the “disappointed in the Atlantic” comment that Wilde did make upon arrival.
Another biography: In Memoriam, Oscar Wilde (1905) by André Gide, Franz Blei, and Ernest La Jeunesse, refers to Wilde’s genius several times (pp. 49, 87, 91, 101) and even quotes Wilde on French customs officers! (p. 55); but still there is no mention of the New York genius/Customs incident.
As there is no other written or oral record of the remark by anyone else during Wilde’s lifetime all the way up to the time of the Oscar Wilde Calendar, it hardly smacks of tradition that it took almost thirty years for the quotation to emerge.
It is just possible that the story existed before Ross was implicated in the Millard and Ransome sources. Perhaps it had a life of urban mythology, having undergone a corruption or misattribution similar to several of Wilde’s other remarks. One is reminded that much history, especially quotation, is apocryphal: too good not to have been said.
It would also be a seductive notion if any oral history of the incident included Wilde himself, as this invites the possibility that Wilde, even if he did not make the remark at New York Customs, might later have told Ross that he had done so, or between them they playfully imagined he had done so. It would not be unlike Wilde to revel in the public’s belief of a rumor about himself.
But there is no evidence for any of this speculation.
There is, however, one fact that should dismiss the idea outright, and it is that Wilde did not line up at Customs, in the commonly imagined way, waiting to be asked if he had anything to declare. What happened was that a Customs House officer boarded Wilde’s ship while it still lay at Quarantine and, as Wilde confirmed, “relieved me all trouble about my baggage”. So it appears that Wilde was ushered through Customs and, significantly, this official later became a professional greeter in the employ of Wilde’s sponsor Richard D’Oyly Carte. Oh, and there is no evidence that the Customs official ever mentioned the incident either. 
Therefore, the probability remains that the remark originated with Ross, no mean wit himself, which he may have created either intentionally apropos of Wilde or innocently misremembered from a conversation with him.
But lacking contemporary evidence it is not possible to be definitive and reasonable inference must still be towards doubt.
At least we now an an earlier example.
* The copy of The Wilde Calendar illustrated is the Second Edition, March 1911, [Mason 638] unusually bound in soft brown leather with gilt title to front and border design.
 This original story and identity of the Customs official will the subject of a separate article.