Oscar Wilde was just ten weeks past his twenty-seventh birthday when he boarded the S. S. Arizona on December 24, 1881, destined for America and a year of lecturing as an expert on art and literature.
Wilde saw himself as a representative of the Aesthetic Movement and hoped to encourage an appreciation for beauty in an America that was largely devoted to industrialization. The tour was promoted to exploit Wilde's reputation as an aesthete. The Arizona arrived in New York on January 2, 1882. Local newspaper reporters were so eager to get a quote from Wilde that several of them hired a launch boat to bring them aboard Wilde's ship before it docked. In an interview the next day, Wilde welcomed his role as defender of the arts: "I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that."
The timing of the tour had everything to do with the recent success of a Gilbert and Sullivan play Patience; or Bunthorne's Bride, which had opened to enthusiastic reviews at the Standard Theatre in New York in September 1881. Patience satirized the Aesthetic Movement and presented a character named Bunthorne who personified the popular stereotypes of the aesthete. The caricature featured long hair, knee breeches, silk stockings, and effete mannerisms. Bunthorne was fond of gazing at lilies and sunflowers. The play recalled one of many legends that Wilde delighted in cultivating. Supposedly he had walked down Piccadilly dressed in such a costume and carrying a flower. Wilde's son Vyvyan later quoted his father's comment on the story: "Anyone could have done that; the difficult thing to achieve was to make people believe that I had done it." As usual, perception was more important than reality for Wilde.
Despite an impressive resonant voice, Wilde made no claim of being a great orator; however, he tried to give the audiences what they expected in appearance as well as a certain degree of enlightenment. He noted on one occasion that the audience was disappointed that he had worn ordinary clothing rather than his knee breeches. On January 31, Wilde was to speak at the Music Hall in Boston. Sixty Harvard students decided to parody Wilde's clothes and manners. When the auditorium was nearly full, the students, each dressed like Bunthorne, paraded in pairs down the center aisle to their seats in the front rows, swishing sunflowers and lilies as they went. Wilde, who had been tipped off, appeared in conventional evening dress. After welcoming the students and the rest of the audience, he drolly commented, "Caricature is the tribute that mediocrity pays to genius." This won loud applause from the entire audience. He then sighed a quiet prayer, "Save me from my disciples," which again evoked enthusiastic applause.
Wilde's appearances were not always so well received. Lecturing on literature or "The English Renaissance" or "The House Beautiful" or "The Decorative Arts," he sometimes spoke to small crowds or received mediocre reviews. At other times, he was a huge success, so much so that his tour, originally scheduled for three months, was extended to ten months. He spoke in more than a hundred cities and towns throughout the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West, and in several cities in Canada. He appeared in Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco but also in Atchison, Kansas; Brantford, Ontario; Macon, Georgia; and Galveston, Texas.
Wilde's pose as an aesthete was all the more effective because he himself was a very large man, more than six feet three inches tall. Although he seldom engaged in sports, he was quite strong and known as a good boxer. Sir Frank Benson, himself an athlete at Oxford, reported in his memoirs that only one man in the college "had a ghost of a chance in a tussle with Wilde." On one occasion, four undergraduates entered Wilde's room and broke up his furniture. Wilde caught them in the act, booted out one, doubled over a second with a punch, tossed a third in the air, and carried the fourth to the man's own room, where Wilde invited spectators to join him in sampling the would-be-ruffian's wines and spirits.
On tour, Wilde took special delight in meeting ordinary people. (Remember that many of the accounts of these meetings come from Wilde's letters to friends and relatives back home, and he was never one to allow boring facts to get in the way of a good story.) One of his favorite visits, a highlight of the trip, was to Leadville, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains, and to a silver mine called "Matchless." Wilde read passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, the sixteenth-century Italian artist who was an eminent silversmith. Wilde said that the gun-toting miners were disappointed that he had not brought Cellini with him. When Wilde reported that the artist was dead, one of the miners asked, "Who shot him?"
Another visit, to the state penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska, produced observations made ironic by Wilde's own incarceration thirteen years later. Wilde's letter home spoke of the horrifying existence and the mean-looking men, adding in a letter to Helen Sickert, "I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face." He did ask the inmates if they read and what they read. It gave him pause when he discovered that some were devoted to Shelley and Dante. Wilde himself would later read Dante in prison.
While on tour, Wilde met with various dignitaries and writers, including Walt Whitman and Henry James. The visit with Whitman, at the poet's home in Camden, New Jersey, was precipitated by an interview in which Wilde was asked to name his favorite American poets. He mentioned Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Wilde actually preferred Edgar Allan Poe for his dark moods and Aestheticism, but Poe was dead. Wilde was enough of a self-promoter to mention living writers.
The Philadelphia Press interviewed Whitman at length the evening of his introduction to Wilde (January 19, 1882). Whitman reported that he and Wilde had "a jolly good time" and that Wilde was genuine, honest, and without affectation. They spoke of Tennyson, Browning, and Swinburne while sharing a bottle of homemade elderberry wine. Wilde was respectful and on his best behavior. Later he would qualify his assessment of Whitman's poetry while continuing to respect him as a philosopher and a man.
Wilde's meeting with Henry James was less successful. The novelist called on Wilde at the latter's hotel in Washington, D. C., two days after Wilde's visit with Whitman. On this occasion, Wilde was less than diplomatic. When James expressed nostalgia for London, Wilde chose to be clever rather than considerate and commented, "You care for places? The world is my home." Wilde's comment seems particularly inappropriate considering that James was the more cultivated cosmopolitan. At any rate, James concluded that Wilde was "a fatuous fool" and "a tenth-rate cad."
Wilde returned to England at the end of the year having concluded a generally successful and profitable tour. He later (1883–85) conducted a sporadic series of lectures on his impressions of America to British audiences.