Oscar Wilde in Sharon Springs, 1882—2022
One could be forgiven for thinking that an article entitled Oscar Wilde in Sharon Springs is about Oscar Wilde in Sharon Springs, meaning his lecture there on August 11, 1882—not an unreasonable assumption.
But latterly such an conclusion would be only half right, because earlier this year the spirit of Oscar Wilde materialized once more in the small Catskills’ town.
I refer to the local Klinkhart Hall Arts Center’s celebratory event ‘The Oscar Wilde Memorial Lecture’.
So proud is this artistic community of its Wildean connection that the occasion has been added to their annual Poetry Festival—the brainchild of Paul Muldoon, the award-winning Irish professor of poetry—to which distinguished writers are invited to read, talk about their work, and conduct poetry workshops.
And so the privilege fell to me to recapture Wilde’s visit to Sharon Springs by being invited to present the inaugural lecture.
Would I live up to the original Lord of Language?
Second fiddle though I was, there were no second thoughts. For me, replicating Oscar’s tour has become instinctive—and Sharon Springs presented a wonderful opportunity to add to my investigation of his lectures in North America.
It is a vocation that has often landed me in his large and daunting footsteps, beginning over 20 years ago with a guided tour of New York City where Oscar spent more time than anywhere else on the continent; and my work since has encompassed speaking engagements in places ranging from the same theatre of the upscale Newport Casino in Rhode Island where Oscar ushered in Mrs Vanderbilt with a witty remark, to a field in rural Maryland to address the good folk of the Agriculture Resource Council at their Sunflower Soirée.
But never before I have pursued Wilde in so timely a fashion. For the lecture was arranged for August 11—precisely 140 years to the day that Oscar gave his talk in Sharon Springs, NY.
The major difference, unavoidably, was the venue: the Pavilion Hotel where Oscar lectured has long since been demolished, although the guest book, with Wilde’s signature in it, survives at the Sharon Springs Historical Society. Instead my lecture look place at the American Hotel, almost as old as the Pavilion, and superseding it as the finest in town, of course. The cosy confines of this Catskills enclave must surely be the place for which the word convivial was coined.
Also in keeping with Oscar’s custom at summer resorts, my lecture was conducted in the dining salon of the hotel in the late afternoon of a summer’s day. The tables were comfortably full—as were the guests—and the shades suffused a warm glow as the chink of a wine glass heralded proceedings. My slideshow began by exploring Oscar’s life up to and including his successful American tour; continued by tracing his route to Sharon Springs (possible by train in his day); and finished with a précis of the Wilde biography for the uninitiated. Happily, the event was a success: well attended and well received.
My thanks again are extended not only to the fine people of Klinkhart Hall Arts Center, but also to everyone else in town—I think I met them all. This is easier to do than you might imagine because in Sharon Springs most people seem to be on at least two committees. I discovered this when a member of the arts council turned out to be the proprietor of my hotel. He also ran the front desk. I asked him what he did in his spare time, if he had any, and he said he was also the Mayor. All this dedication to public service did wonders to hone local hospitality of which I had the good fortune to benefit. I am sure they knew in advance what Oscar once said about visiting lecturers being treated like the Royal Boy.
Much else happened in Sharon Springs so in the interests of at least some brevity, I shall round out the Wildean part of my story in pictures. Here are related images from Sharon Springs 140 years apart.
Sharon Springs 1882
Oscar’s lecture was given at the Pavilion Hotel on August 11, 1882.
Sharon Springs 2022
My lecture was given at the America Hotel on August 11, 2022.
So enthused was I at being on tour that I decided to emulate Oscar’s Summer sojourn in the Catskills still further by staying a few days myself.
This gave me the opportunity to visit nearby Cooperstown where Oscar had also lectured. As a Cooper myself I thought it would be a welcoming place. A chance to pass myself off as a long lost descendant of Judge William Cooper who founded the eponymous village on Otsego Lake. Perhaps to visit the resting place of his son, James Fenimore Cooper—the noted author of a series of novels that includes The Last of the Mohicans—who grew up in the frontier town and is buried there.
But there was no fanfare. My arrival in town went virtually unrecognized, and, as far as I could see these days, so does Oscar’s visit as well. This is probably owing to what every American knows, that Cooperstown now relies in popular consensus on a single distinction: it is the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Consequently, the quaint little village has morphed over time into a baseball pilgrimage with every second building devoted to the game in one guise or another.
Cognizant that my invitation was cultural not sporting, I chose not to absorb myself in the world of bats, balls, and red baseball caps. This news was received by my aesthetically minded host and driver with a palpable sense of deliverance as we passed the gates of the venerable institution without stopping. This decision also provided a moment of discovery: that the most rewarding way not to do something is to go there and not do it. Any fool can simply not go.
So we traded baseball memorabilia for peace and harmony in a nearby organic and ethical café before visiting The Fenimore Art Museum by the lake on a perfect afternoon.
Happy summer days in retrospection.