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 rise to 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 to be known: it was a journey through his art and life towards an imperative for anonymity.
Oscar Wilde’s After-Dinner Rebuke to his Press Critics
Rewritten in 2019 for the Oscar Wilde Society newsletter. For membership go to: oscarwildesociety.co.uk/membership/
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.
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.