The Modern Messiah

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A cartoon printed in the satirical magazine The Wasp to mark Oscar Wilde’s arrival in San Francisco

When Wilde arrived in San Francisco he was greeted by thousands of people curious to see him.

This cartoon, entitled “The Modern Messiah,” which appeared in The Wasp on the eve of Oscar Wilde’s third lecture in San Francisco [1],  shows such a crowd, but in satirical style.

Heavily featured are sunflowers, one of the floral emblems of the aesthetic movement; another, calla lilies, known to decorate Wilde’s table at dinners in America, serve as the donkey’s ears.

Also depicted in the scene are caricatures resonant of Wilde’s visit, some of whom were thought responsible for bringing Wilde to San Francisco, and therefore supportive of him. Here is a rundown of the personalities depicted:

Oscar Wilde

Oscar is shown arriving in messianic style. Compare the biblical:

“… your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

The modern messiah, however, bears a sunflower emblazoned with a dollar sign which reflects the accusation that his motivations were as pecuniary as they were missionary.

The Donkey

Braying, and with sunflower saddle and lily ears, we are reminded of the epithet “ass-thete” that accompanied Wilde across America, but here the donkey symbolizes his visit to San Francisco: attached to the tail is the $5,000 that Wilde was reportedly paid for his series of lectures in California; around the neck, padlocked to the conveyance, is an image of Wilde’s California promoter Charles E. Locke. The words on the padlock are “Bush St. Theatre”, where Locke was manager. Also, at Bush and Montgomery Streets was Platt’s Hall where Wilde lectured four times.

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Man With the Goatee Beard

goateeCharles Crocker (1822—1888) railroad executive who founded the Central Pacific Railroad that took Wilde on his journey to California.

Man With White Hair

bierceSkulking somewhat appropriately behind proceedings is Ambrose Bierce (1842—c. 1914), who penned a relentless attack on Wilde in The Wasp, March 31, 1882, the text of which can be found at Wilde’s lecture on April 1.

Man at Far Left With Beard

isaacIsaac Smith Kalloch (1832—1887) 18th Mayor of San Francisco serving from December 1, 1879 to December 4, 1881.

Man With Long White Beard (behind sunflower back left)

beardMaurice Carey Blake (1815—1897) 19th Mayor of San Francisco, serving from December 5, 1881 to January 7, 1883.

Short Man With Moustache

danny-boyDaniel O’Connell (1849—1899) poet, actor, writer, journalist, and the grand-nephew of Daniel O’Connell (1775—1847), the famed Irish orator and politician.

O’Connell was co-founder of the Bohemian Club where Wilde was feted and had his portrait painted. The painting of Wilde hung in the club until it was lost in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Man With Broken Sunflower

Possibly impresario Tom Maguire.

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Boys in the Foreground

Newspaper sellers, one carrying The Wasp in which the cartoon appeared [1].

Chinese in the Background

While in San Francisco Wilde famously visited Chinatown and expressed his admiration of their decorative arts, such as delicate tea cups.


[1] The Wasp, March 31, 1882 (G.F. Keller)

Cowboys and Indians

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Lecturing in the midwest, Oscar Wilde meets pioneers and native Americans

This is Boyd’s Theatre and Opera House in Omaha, Nebraska, as it was when Oscar Wilde lectured there.

If the surroundings look a little unmade (and Oscar complained about the muddy streets) it was to be expected—in 1882 the midwest of America was still a place of frontier development, something that the people of St. Paul ironically accepted:

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By the time Wilde arrived in Omaha in March 1882, the geography of his American adventure had started to take shape.

Continue reading Cowboys and Indians

Lillie Langtry’s Autograph

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Piecing together history: Oscar Wilde’s mail arrives

When I was preparing my recent posting about Oscar Wilde and his lecture in Bloomington during the local council drainage meeting, I was reminded that Wilde once wrote a letter from Bloomington.

A moment’s research led to a minor historical jigsaw.

Continue reading Lillie Langtry’s Autograph

The Dilemma of Movements

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The Scatology of Oscar Wilde’s Bloomington lecture

Local councillors in Bloomington, IL had a committee meeting arranged for the evening of March 10, 1882, so when Oscar Wilde was announced to lecture later the same evening it was always going to be a tough choice: whether to attend the reported tedium of Oscar’s aesthetic lecture on art decoration or continue in contemplating the town drainage—which was the pressing agendum that evening.

Continue reading The Dilemma of Movements

Indecent Postures | Wilde Plays Cricket

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The summer game is upon us with the reminder that in Oscar Wilde’s earliest surviving letter, as well as in his final poem, there is mention of cricket.

In 1868, Oscar Wilde proudly wrote to his Mother that his school had beaten the visiting 27th Regiment at cricket by 70 runs [1]. Thirty years later, at the other end of his writing career, the initial description Wilde gives us of Charles Thomas Wooldrige, the tragic dedicatee of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), is that a cricket cap was on his head.

What, you may ask, do these bookends portend? Well, precisely nothing.

Or so I thought.

Continue reading Indecent Postures | Wilde Plays Cricket

Identity Crisis | Book Review: Declaring His Genius

Book Review: Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde In North America, by Roy Morris, Jr.

morris-coverBY JOHN COOPER

Those of us, like Mrs Cheveley, who are fond of calling things by their proper name, would struggle to categorize Declaring His Genius, by Roy Morris, Jr.

Let us start with what it is not. It is not profound enough to be a serious biography of an American Wilde—and, to be fair, it might never have been published if it were. Besides, one would not expect such an approach of a book that asserts that ‘Wilde may well have been a genius—at self promotion, if nothing else’ [my emphasis], which makes one wonder whether the author is convinced enough of Wilde as a thinker or writer to produce a critical study.

But neither is the book what it purports to be, which is an account of Wilde’s time in America—at least not exclusively. This is because the Wilde story Morris gives us is full of holes. By this I am not referring to the wealth of factual errors throughout the text which need only be problematic for the Wilde historian. As such there is no need to dwell on them here, beyond noting that the Introduction signals this disregard for integrity by adhering to remarks that sound ‘like something Wilde would have said’, explaining that the book ‘depends to a certain extent on anecdote, word of mouth, and local legend.’

[See web site for list of scholarly errata]

No, by holes I mean the opportunistic detours the book takes from a rounded theme of Wilde’s American tour which Morris fills with square pegs. The result is a flawed schema that places its protagonist amid an anthology of sometimes tangential, but often downright irrelevant, populist history.

Continue reading Identity Crisis | Book Review: Declaring His Genius

Oscar Wilde’s Pants Down Again

Another notable advertisement featuring Oscar Wilde on his lecture tour of America in 1882. This time his pants.

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Further to my recent post featuring advertisements that used Oscar Wilde’s name and image during his lecture tour, here is another notable example.

It shows Oscar in a quite demure pose as if he had something to hide. But fear not, he is exposed only below the knee.

Wilde’s long hair and knee-breeches excited many a soirée in 1882, prompting one commentator to note that Oscar “pants” after a certain celebrity, but that he should make it two because a pair of pants is something he obviously needs.

Advertisers, too, had Wilde’s trousers in mind. This example uses an image of a long-haired Oscar and the slogan Pants Down Again—presumably the price. What advertisers did not realise was that Oscar would soon take the slogan literally.

When he returned to America in 1883, he reversed the trend. Instead of long hair and short pants, Oscar confounded observers by wearing his hair short and his pants long.  His Neronian coiffure was certainly a radical change; but while the hair was now up, it would seem the pants were down once again.

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Oscar Wilde in 1883.

Oscar Wilde on Irish Poets

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Oscar Wilde’s lecture in San Francisco on Irish Poets

On this day in 1882 [1] 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 evolutionary successor The Decorative Arts, and his usual alternative The House Beautiful.

[See Lecture Titles for the development of Wilde’s lecture topics].

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.

Continue reading Oscar Wilde on Irish Poets

A Scene at Long Beach

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The intrigue that followed a chance meeting with Oscar Wilde in 1882

A young girl who Oscar Wilde met on vacation in 1882 became the lover of Wilde’s future niece and also had an affair with Wilde’s own lover’s future wife.

Confused? Then read on.

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Sam Ward, also seated in the above illustration.

It all began when Sam Ward, the author, gourmand, and political lobbyist who had taken Wilde under his wing in America, invited him to Long Beach, the seaside resort on Long Island, New York.

After the holiday, on July 31, 1882, Ward wrote to his niece Maud Howe [1]:

Continue reading A Scene at Long Beach

Conspicuous (Even By His Absence)

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Oscar Wilde could be found almost everywhere in 1882

The phenomenon of Wilde’s US ubiquity 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 other factors: 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 well known.

Take the world of advertising.

Wilde was such a cultural phenomenon during his American tour that his name was used by advertisers to generate media exposure for products with which he had no connection.

Continue reading Conspicuous (Even By His Absence)