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.
Here we see an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose.
In a recent post I drew attention to the photograph (which is from the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin), as it has recently taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde.
The reason for the photograph’s belated addition to the canon is that it does not appear to have been previously published, nor was there any digital example online—so it is true to say that it had never been widely, if at all, circulated.
And yet, its existence should not come as a complete surprise to Wilde scholars. To understand why, we must consider the part played by the corresponding illustration.
Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.
However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.
To see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.
There is a pleasing symmetry in the idea of the flamboyant Napoleon Sarony photographing Oscar Wilde because they were both specialists in posing—albeit from opposing perspectives. So it is not surprising that they also had parallel views about it.
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.
Eating oysters in Connecticut is a big thing; and when in Hartford, CT, there was only one place to go: Honiss’ Oyster House. In 1981 the New York Times ran an article about the famous old place, now long since gone:
It isn’t every restaurant in Connecticut that can claim – as the Honiss Oyster House Company does – to have served Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Andre Previn and Steve Martin, or to have the very booth where Buffalo Bill Cody ate regularly when he was in town with his Wild West Show.
Honiss’s dimly-lit basement walls are crammed with photographs of customers past. There are more than a thousand pictures in all, dating to the 1880’s, when Thomas Honiss and Fred Atchinson purchased the then-40-year-old restaurant downstairs in the United States Hotel.
What the newspaper did not mention, and possibly because the restaurant also failed to realize it, is that Oscar Wilde also partook of Honiss’ famous oysters while residing at the United States Hotel in 1882.
MAKING OSCAR WILDE by Michèle Mendelssohn Oxford University Press (2018)
REVIEWED BY: John Cooper
One of the most noteworthy contributions to the recent surge in Wildean material has been Michèle Mendelssohn’s treatise Making Oscar Wilde (2018).
As the title suggests, it is an attempt to establish a premise for the shaping of Wilde’s persona—the latest in a history of such perspectives which has included disquisitions via his Irish roots, his American experience, his men, his women, his friends, his enemies, his wit, his letters, his published works, his unpublished works, his recorded life, his unrecorded life, and, for good measure, his afterlife.
Now Making Oscar Wilde takes a potentially useful and probably unique view through the prism of Wilde’s racial profile. On surface reading the work has much to commend it—but to discover whether it works as a construction we will have to disassemble it.
After traveling across the vast expanses of the American south for more than a month, lecturing in 18 cities, Wilde returned to New York for some rest and relaxation with friends at the exclusive Summer resorts of the north-east.
On July 15, 1882. Oscar gave a courtesy lecture at the Casino during a week’s stay with Julia Ward Howe and friends at Newport, RI, (revisited here) and he did not lecture again for two and a half weeks.
During that time he:
— visited Long Beach with Sam Ward where he was to be found creating interest on the beach;
—cruised around Long Island for three days with Robert Roosevelt aboard his yacht, occasionally swimming, fishing and calling in at popular hotels;
—visited the actress Clara Morris at her retreat in Riverdale, NY;
—stayed with statesman John Bigelow at his summer home at Highland Falls, near West Point;
—vacationed at Long Branch spending a night as guest of former President of the United States, General Ulysses S. Grant, which must have provided a interesting counterpoint to his recent stay with Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederate States of America, at his home at Beauvoir;
—traveled to Peekskill to stay with clergyman and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher with whom he attended a church service and a military band concert.
After all that urbane socializing it was time to head for the hills for more urbane socializing—and a return to lecturing.
The social lion was about to become a mountain lion in The Catskills.