During his visits to America in the early 1880s, Oscar Wilde was merely a controversial figure. His fall from grace was more than a decade hence; or, to employ his own ethical framework, he was still a sinner who had a future.
This idea forms a part of Wilde’s redemptive aphorism in which he differentiates saints and sinners in just one respect: the passage of time.
The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
A Woman of No Importance (1893)
Wilde’s dictum has devolved so much into the public domain that it is often misattributed to the ancients, so I shall not dwell upon it beyond noting that Grayson Quay recently provided an interesting, although circular, analysis of it here.
Besides, now that the Sinner in question has ascended to Saint Oscar—just as he once amusingly styled himself —his quotation has reached the finality of QED. Nothing remains except for me to use it as a shaky segue into another saint with a Wildean past: namely St. Louis, Missouri and Oscar’s visit there in February 1882.
The strain is worth the while, however, as it gives me the opportunity to focus on the two proximate men in the splendid St.Louis cartoon above.
Nobody ever alleged that my allegiance to alliteration was anything other than alluring, so allow me to allude to this little Oscar Wilde story about the ladies Labouchère and Langtry, the Liberal, and the Lord of Language.
Or perhaps it would be even more obscure, and thus more intriguing, to say it is about Henrietta Hodson, Hester & The Two Henrys, and The Home Depot.
Either way, we must first place the tale in context.
In my now completed itinerary of Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour of across North America in 1882, you will find logged the more than one hundred hotels or houses where Oscar stayed while lecturing, and illustrated are all the different lecture theatres, music halls, and opera houses where he spoke.
A commonality emerges among most of these venues, and it is exemplified in the phrase most often repeated in the chronicle: Destroyed by Fire—a common occurrence for many public buildings during an era of open hearths, gas lighting, indoor smoking, and a general lack of fire-resistant materials.
Some of the buildings Oscar visited suffered this fate more than once, but none were burned down more times than the Dafoe House in Belleville Ontario.
Here we see an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose.
In a recent post I drew attention to the photograph (which is from the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin), as it has recently taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde.
The reason for the photograph’s belated addition to the canon is that it does not appear to have been previously published, nor was there any digital example online—so it is true to say that it had never been widely, if at all, circulated.
And yet, its existence should not come as a complete surprise to Wilde scholars. To understand why, we must consider the part played by the corresponding illustration.
Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.
However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.
To see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.
There is a pleasing symmetry in the idea of the flamboyant Napoleon Sarony photographing Oscar Wilde because they were both specialists in posing—albeit from opposing perspectives. So it is not surprising that they also had parallel views about it.
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.
Eating oysters in Connecticut is a big thing; and when in Hartford, CT, there was only one place to go: Honiss’ Oyster House. In 1981 the New York Times ran an article about the famous old place, now long since gone:
It isn’t every restaurant in Connecticut that can claim – as the Honiss Oyster House Company does – to have served Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Andre Previn and Steve Martin, or to have the very booth where Buffalo Bill Cody ate regularly when he was in town with his Wild West Show.
Honiss’s dimly-lit basement walls are crammed with photographs of customers past. There are more than a thousand pictures in all, dating to the 1880’s, when Thomas Honiss and Fred Atchinson purchased the then-40-year-old restaurant downstairs in the United States Hotel.
What the newspaper did not mention, and possibly because the restaurant also failed to realize it, is that Oscar Wilde also partook of Honiss’ famous oysters while residing at the United States Hotel in 1882.