Oscar Wilde’s lecture in San Francisco on Irish Poets
On this day in 1882  at Platt’s Hall, Oscar Wilde delivered the ninth of ten consecutive lectures in California, and his fourth and last in San Francisco.
As San Francisco was the only city in America where Wilde lectured four times, he needed an additional lecture to add to the three he was already giving, which were: The English Renaissance, its successor The Decorative Arts, and The House Beautiful.
Wilde chose as his subject Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century(referred to in some texts as The Irish Poets of ’48), an idea he had hinted at on St.Patrick’s Day in St.Paul, where he made a rare expression of Irish nationalist sentiment.
Oscar Wilde could be found almost everywhere in 1882
This phenomenon has been well-documented, most recently in David Friedman’s Wilde in America (2014) which portrays Wilde as being so intent upon fame that he had a strategy for achieving it—a view with much validity.
Whatever Wilde’s personal strategy was, however, he was compounded in the effort by his own tour publicity, the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience and its burlesques, and a general curiosity of the people to see him. As a result, one might wonder whether it is possible to be too ubiquitous.
Take the world of advertising.
Wilde was so famous on his American tour that his name was used by advertisers to generate media exposure for products with which he had no connection.
Nicholas Frankel’s scholarly edition of The Annotated Importance of Being Earnest
I am fascinated by the editorial introduction and inter-leaf annotations in Nicholas Frankel’s new scholarly edition of The Annotated Importance of Being Earnest . The publisher, Harvard University Press, tells us that Frankel’s running commentary, “ties the play closely to Wilde’s personal life and sexual identity, illuminating literary, biographical, and historical allusions.”
Quite right. The book include not only insights into Wilde’s meaning, but also information about the chronology of Wilde’s textual changes, some of which were made four years after the play was first staged. All this is quite revelatory for those who, like me, appreciate the research that must have gone into it. Or, put another way, it’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you like that kind of thing.
However, this article is not a book review. I have something revelatory of my own.
The last time Oscar Wilde visited Philadelphia it was to promote an opera. That was during a lecture tour of America in 1882 when a required part of his raison d’être was to be the poster-boy for Gilbert & Sullivan’s latest offering Patience—a comic opera whose purpose was to ridicule the adherents of the Aesthetic Movement. Not that it mattered to Oscar Wilde that he was the movement’s leading representative and the person most closely identified with the ridicule. He always knew he would outlive the mob mentality, and it is an ironic measure of the wisdom of Wilde’s indifference that he has triumphantly returned to Philadelphia as the subject of an opera himself. The question now is: if Oscar the man was indifferent to Patience, would he have had any patience for Oscar the opera?
Following my appearance on the truncated piece about Wilde on WHYY TV’s Articulate with Jim Cotter (they decided against the planned full show on Oscar, but that’s television), I appeared today on Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane, WHYY’s flagship radio interview program that examines local & national news, current trends, and ideas.
I was a guest along with famed countertenor DAVID DANIELS, who plays the Oscar Wilde in the opera Oscar, and the composer THEO MORRISON, to talk about Wilde and his imprisonment, which is the main theme of the opera.
Oscar Wilde’s journey to California was a significant event in itself as it constituted his longest period of continuous traveling—4 days and 4 nights—incorporating some 1867 miles and over 200 station stops. It was, as might be imagined with Oscar Wilde on board, a journey that was not without several incidents and experiences. Trace Wilde’s Journey to California, discover the route, and learn about his adventures and life on board the train.
On December 24, 1881, Oscar Wilde sailed for America from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Arizona bound for New York. The reasons for his much-heralded visit seemed clear enough: to promote Gilbert & Sullivan’s latest operetta, Patience, while conducting a series of lectures on subjects of his own choosing.
The ship arrived late on January 2, 1882, and lay at quarantine overnight. On the morning of January 3, the Arizona pulled into its dock, and passengers headed for the customs shed at Castle Garden, which was the point of entry for visitors to NewYork and a major receiving station for immigrants prior to the opening of Ellis Island some ten years later.
A cartoon depicting Oscar Wilde at the end of his visit to America in 1882 in contrasting poses.
Oscar Wilde’s American visits resulted in mixed fortunes: he failed to make any literary advance, and although his tour met with a mixed reception critically, it was a great commercial success. We can see these fortunes reflected in the Judge cartoon.
On the left, recognizing the commercial success of his lecture tour, Oscar is shown surrounded by lilies and sunflowers (the floral emblems of the aesthetic movement), and showered with gold. On the right we see him somewhat shabbier, and with his bags packed at Castle Garden, the receiving station at New York: under his arm is Vera, the play Wilde brought with him and for which he struggled to find interest. The play was eventually staged in New York in August 1883 but was a withdrawn after a week.