Declaring His Genius

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America

Roy Morris
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Declaring His Genius
    Book Description:

    Arriving at the port of New York in 1882, a 27-year-old Oscar Wilde quipped he had “nothing to declare but my genius.” But as this sparkling narrative reveals, Wilde was, rarely for him, underselling himself. A chronicle of his sensational eleven-month speaking tour of America, Declaring His Genius offers an indelible portrait of both Oscar Wilde and the Gilded Age. Neither Wilde nor America would ever be the same.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06787-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” Oscar Wilde famously said—or is supposed to have said—to American customs agents when he arrived at the port of New York on the morning of January 3, 1882. No one actually heard him say it, but it sounded like something Wilde would have said, and by the time literary biographer Arthur Ransome quoted it first in his 1912 study of the author, the quip already had passed into legend. Like many of Wilde’s best-known witticisms, real or imagined, it actually meant a great deal more than it said. The twenty-seven-year-old...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Too Too Utterly Utter
    (pp. 6-25)

    On a wintry gray afternoon on the day after New Year’s, 1882, a chilled boatload of newspaper reporters in a chartered launch thrashed across the waves in New York harbor toward the steamship Arizona, sitting at anchor off Staten Island. Night would be falling soon, but the journalists couldn’t wait for the ship to clear quarantine the next morning. They were after answers to the burning questions: “Why have you come to America?” and “Do you really eat flowers for breakfast?”

    The object of the reporters’ quest was waiting serenely in the captain’s quarters, utterly indifferent—or at least carefully...

  5. CHAPTER 2 More Wonderful Than Dickens
    (pp. 26-48)

    Purely by accident, Oscar Wilde arrived in America at a particularly opportune moment for an English (or Irish) celebrity. The highly publicized marriage of New York socialite Jennie Jerome to Lord Randolph Churchill a few years earlier, which in time would give the world the remarkable Winston, had attracted widespread attention in the United States. And the heroes’ welcome recently accorded to former President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant in London, where they were hosted by Queen Victoria, had led to a new round of Anglophilia—never far from the surface in supposedly democratic America. Indeed, English fashions had become...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Those Who Dawnce Don’t Dine
    (pp. 49-70)

    Wilde’s opening night triumph at Chickering Hall, however provisional, gave him added confidence as he headed south to his second speaking engagement, at Philadelphia’s Horticultural Hall, on January 17. Accompanied by Colonel Morse, the neophyte lecturer took a ferry across the Hudson River from Manhattan to Jersey City, where he would catch the southbound train for Philadelphia. A reporter for the Philadelphia Press waited at the ferry dock to join them for the train ride down. “There he is!” the reporter heard someone cry. “That’s Oscar Wilde!”¹

    Wearing his now-familiar green overcoat, Wilde bustled off the ferry ahead of the...

  7. CHAPTER 4 What Would Thoreau Have Said to My Hat-Box!
    (pp. 71-96)

    Wilde journeyed to Boston via train by way of Albany, New York, where he lectured again on the English Renaissance to a sparse but receptive crowd at the Albany Music Hall. He then attended a reception at the Windsor Hotel, before returning to his room at the Delavan. Besieged by autograph hounds in the lobby, he sat down at a desk to sign the proffered slips of paper, joking, “I hope that I am obliging beautiful young ladies, for I make it a point to grant my autographs to no others.” Soon, reporters were calling it “Wilde’s policy,” although he...

  8. CHAPTER 5 No Well-Behaved River Ought to Act This Way
    (pp. 97-120)

    Chicago, Carl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders, was ready and waiting for Oscar Wilde when he arrived in town on the evening of February 10 after an all-day train ride from Niagara Falls. A poem in the Chicago Daily News announced the coming of “the simpering Oscar,” who “comes with words sublimely dull, / In garb superbly silly, / To tell us of the beautiful, / The sunflower and the lily.” Saying he had a brain “like April butter”—whatever that meant—the poem concluded with defiant frontier vigor: “We like to look at Western mules, / But not...

  9. CHAPTER 6 A Very Italy, Without Its Art
    (pp. 121-142)

    The end of February found Wilde facing a half-empty house in Springfield, Illinois, the adopted hometown and final resting place of Abraham Lincoln. The martyred president was not resting very easily these days: six years earlier a crackpot group of grave robbers had attempted to steal the president’s body and hold it for $200,000 ransom. They had failed (the 500-pound wood-and-lead coffin was too heavy for the thieves to move more than a few inches from its marble sarcophagus at Oak Ridge Cemetery), but city fathers had panicked and reburied Lincoln’s coffin in an unmarked hole in the basement of...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. CHAPTER 7 Don’t Shoot the Pianist; He’s Doing His Best
    (pp. 143-162)

    If San Francisco had proved to be the American city most receptive to the Aesthetic preachments of Oscar Wilde, Salt Lake City figured to be the least. The capital city of Mormon-run Utah Territory, initially named “Deseret” by its founding father, the late prophet Brigham Young, Salt Lake City was a scrupulously clean and carefully laid-out metropolis, filled with equally tidy, squared-off individuals. Following the Civil War, which Mormon leaders had devoutly hoped would finish off both sides and leave them and their coreligionists in control of the country, the city had grown comparatively more welcoming. Wilde’s fellow English traveler...

  12. CHAPTER 8 You Should Have Seen It Before the War
    (pp. 163-188)

    After all the color and drama of the West, the East was more than a little dull. Worse than that, it was repetitive. Wilde had already been to Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, the next stops on his return itinerary. In Dayton, Ohio, on May 2, he stopped over at the Beckel House, where he broke lances with a reporter from the Dayton Daily Democrat. Something of the poet’s irritation at being back in overly familiar surroundings seeped into the interview. Asked the typical opening question about how he found America and her people, Wilde broke character for...

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Oscar of the First Period Is Dead
    (pp. 189-212)

    Before leaving the South, Wilde already had his next destination in mind. From Augusta, Georgia, he wrote to Julia Ward Howe, who had invited him to visit her summer home in ultra-exclusive Newport, Rhode Island. “I write to you from the beautiful, passionate, ruined South, the land of magnolias and music, of roses and romance,” he informed her, where people were “living chiefly on credit, and on the memory of some crushing defeats.” He longed for the more civilized society of Newport.¹

    With Howe’s brother, Samuel Ward, accompanying him, Wilde arrived at the resort at the height of the social...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 215-232)
  15. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 233-234)
  16. Index
    (pp. 235-248)