A Saint With A Past

A Sinner in Saint Louis

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 [1]—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.


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Destroyed By Fire

dafoe-house.jpg

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.

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Bridgeton, NJ


—ANOTHER DISCOVERED LECTURE—

In verifying Oscar Wilde’s tour of America, one occasionally come across previously unrecorded lectures, such as the ones at the seaside resort of Narragansett Pier, RI, a second talk given by Wilde in Saratoga Springs, and another he gave for the YMCA in Yorkville, New York City [1].

This last lecture in New York redefined what biographers thought had been Wilde’s final lecture in North America at St. John, in New Brunswick, Canada.

Now another lecture has emerged which also post-dates Wilde final Canada visit.

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Young Fry

Stephen Fry as a Younger Oscar Wilde (in America)

Stephen Fry is known for playing Oscar Wilde in the 1997 movie Wilde.

The opening to that film shows Oscar arriving in town on horseback for his lecture in Leadville, Colorado, but the scene gives a false impression. Not because he actually arrived in Leadville by train; no, nothing so pedantic.

The point is that the 1997 film is not even about Wilde’s time in America. Its arc is the period of Oscar’s relationship with Alfred Douglas in Europe ten years later. So why do they show Leadville? The producer once told me that the real-life incident in Leadville, when the encaged Wilde descends into a mineshaft, was included by the screenwriter to symbolize Wilde’s descent in life. One may consider this as another aspect of the film that doesn’t quite fit, but that’s another story.

Instead, let us move forward to the past; because if it is Stephen Fry playing the youthful Wilde in America you want, did you know he had already done just that before he made the film Wilde?

You can discover—and watch—his earlier embodiment of Wilde below.

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