Oscar Wilde’s Reception in Kansas and the Sunflower Soirée.
I recently gave a talk on the subject of Oscar Wilde and his relationship with sunflowers to the good people of the Maryland Agriculture Resource Council at their Sunflower Soirée, a yearly festival devoted to the Helianthus annuus. Literally, an annual event.
Between you and me, it was a wonderful occasion; but as there was a gloomy weather forecast I choose to focus on the portent to a poignant moment.
John Cooper expands on comments he made as a member of a panel discussion at the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway, Ireland, in 2014, in which he appraised Wilde’s legacy and his personal response to it.
(I) RISE AND FALL
Finding Oscar Wilde during his lecture tour of America in 1882 presented few difficulties. Throughout the year he made hundreds of appearances in public and thousands in the press. But his transatlantic sojourn was not merely prolific, it was a surprisingly formative time that saw Wildean firsts in all aspects of his career. Professionally, he nurtured the art of public speaking, began lecturing, and conducted his first press interviews. In his personal life he entered a new sphere of poets, writers, and statesmen; and he embarked upon a lifelong pattern of occasionally earning, but of always spending, large sums of money. Creatively, he became increasingly familiar with formulating his thought into thesis, while socially he was gathering material and honing epigrams for use in his early essays, short stories, and dramatic dialogues. Perhaps most surprisingly, it was in America that he staged the first ever production of a Wilde play.1 And lastingly, it was in New York City that the predominant image we have of him was formed with a series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony. After America, one might say, Oscar had become famous for more than just being famous.
Not surprisingly, given this degree of exposure and experience, contemporary opinion was that America had made a greater impression on Wilde than vice-versa. Supporting this view is the fact that his audiences, although they had attended his lectures, came to see rather than to hear him; and even though he was often personally liked, he was more often publicly ridiculed. Wilde’s maligned persona was so widespread that the ability to locate him in the abstract sense, even for those who had not seen him, also presented few difficulties. In sum: the breadth of his presence made Wilde familiar in person, and the stereotype of his character provided the measure of him as a personality.
We now see that Wilde cannot be so easily pigeon-holed.
The above appraisal is from a recent edition of the U.S. version of Antiques Roadshow, and features a manuscript sonnet by Oscar Wilde which has recently come to light.
While it is a newly discovered manuscript, it is not a newly discovered poem. It is one from the Wilde canon which he retitled as Ideal Love andpresented with a dedication to an acquaintance named Christian Gauss, a young American journalist.
The sin was mine; I did not understand. So now is music prisoned in her cave, Save where some ebbing desultory wave Frets with its restless whirls this meagre strand. And in the withered hollow of this land Hath Summer dug herself so deep a grave, That hardly can the silver willow crave One little blossom from keen Winter’s hand.
But who is this who cometh by the shore? (Nay, love, look up and wonder!) Who is this Who cometh in dyed garments from the South? It is thy new-found Lord, and he shall kiss The yet unravished roses of thy mouth, And I shall weep and worship, as before. 
A scholarly analysis of this discovery and the intriguing history of Wilde’s poem can be found in the current edition of the The Wildean, the journal the Oscar Wilde Society.
A rediscovered letter by Oscar Wilde informs his relationship with anonymity
Wilde’s college exploits, his aesthetic entry into London society, the self-publicity of his American tour, and his pursuit of fame have all been well documented; and the story often distills to the crucial moment of his fall from grace, a short period in 1895 when fame turned to infamy.
But there is a more enduring, more subtle, and underlying theme that began with Wilde’s desire for the opposite: a journey through his art and life towards an imperative for anonymity.
When it comes to measuring time, sixty is an oddly benign number. It records the seconds into minutes and the minutes into hours quite stealthily. But when the number is used to mark the passage of years—three score can give one quite a jolt. So when the occasion crept up on me last week, I was need of rejuvenation.
An outing to the theatre would be the tonic I thought. But with the next Wilde play not until later in the month, I would need to find another balm for my (increasingly) furrowed brow.
What then if not Oscar? Perhaps something pre-Oscar…
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.
Literary Metaphor at the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway
Focused though I am on Oscar Wilde In America, I like to keep an eye on the bigger picture. However, I know that to see the brushstrokes up close it is sometimes necessary to depart from topical and geographical constraints and visit the works themselves.
So last weekend I attended the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway, Ireland, where I discovered part of the Wilde canvas rendered in two books with contrasting techniques.