In Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience” the young Oscar Wilde was a model for Bunthorne, the mannered aesthete who minced down London’s Piccadilly road flourishing a poppy or perhaps a lily. With “Patience” a growing hit in America, its producer Richard D’Oyly Carte had the promotional notion of sending over Wilde himself to parade his extravagant manners, costumes, and sallies. Something like, I suppose, road-touring an outsize gorilla to promote “King Kong.’’ Indeed The Washington Post, one among the virtually unanimous number of newspapers to mock him, likened him to the Wild Man of Borneo.
And yet in many of the 140 cities and towns where he spoke, through an incredibly grueling year chronicled by Roy Morris Jr. in “Declaring His Genius,” he drew big audiences. These tended to leave disappointed with the windy substance of his lectures — the need for Beauty — and still more their monotonous delivery. At Harvard and in several other university towns students attempted to upstage him by parading up the aisle dressed to imitate his flamboyance and waving flowers; Wilde took it all in good humor. His comic genius, after all, was for writing and spontaneous retorts carefully prepared in advance, not extended speech. Yet everywhere the socially and financially prominent entertained him lavishly as their imported celebrity and social lion.
If we think of Wilde in America, it is of a preening show-off announcing at customs that “I have nothing to declare but my genius”; and going on to epigrammatize his way across the continent. The valuable point made by Morris is that beneath the performance — and it was one, with Wilde conscientiously playing the mocker’s role the public paid to see, and the public collecting its due of pleasurable annoyance — there was something deeper. Elaborate mask aside, Wilde possessed an eye that was both avid and innocent; and if there was much in America and Americans to criticize, there was much that surprised, instructed, and pleased him. A contrast, Morris notes, to Dickens’s excoriations after his own American tour.
From his first stop in New York, where he addressed a packed house at Chickering Hall, the course of Wilde’s stops was much the same. First a series of interviews with the local press, for which he arrayed himself in full flamboyant fig, disposed himself langorously across a sofa, and contrived as much epigrammatic paradox as he could think up. The published accounts were largely sardonic, but this did not dampen their subject’s persistent bright spirits. After the interviews a lecture on either one of two subjects: England’s aesthetic movement (Ruskin and Pater) or advice on decorating the home (he particularly deplored cast-iron stoves). Finally an account of the dinners and the people he met.
Morris gives a full account of all this, city after city, and the book suffers badly from what becomes monotonous repetition. It suffers as well from the fact that with a few exceptions the names of Wilde’s society pals in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and dozens of other places mean nothing to us; they are simply lists. Likewise the newspaper accounts become numbingly repetitive, with the writers attempting to match gibes with Wilde. By contrast to Falstaff, who was “the cause that wit is in other men,’’ Wilde was the cause that there was failed wit in journalists, though his disparagement of Niagara Falls drew the nice rejoinder that “what the Falls thought of [Wilde] will probably never be known.”
More lively is the account of Wilde’s whiskey-soaked lunch with Colorado silver miners at the bottom of their mine; and his meetings with American literary figures. “I come as a poet to call upon a poet,” he announced to a nonplussed Walt Whitman — by then Wilde had produced only a book of bad poems and a failed play — after which Whitman prepared a milk punch, nonplussing his visitor. Henry James hated him (buttoned-up meets unbuttoned) calling him “a fatuous fool, a tenth rate cad, and an unclean beast.”
If Morris’s handling of his subject can be tedious, sometimes archly written, and with occasional asides that seem largely padding, his concluding theme compensates for quite a lot. After his return to England Wilde discarded his flamboyant costuming, got a haircut, and buckled down to his writing. “The Oscar of the first period is dead,” he wrote a friend. “We are now concerned with the Oscar Wilde of the second period, who has nothing to do with the gentleman who wore long hair and carried a sunflower down Piccadilly.”
“In the end America changed Wilde more than Wilde changed America,” Morris writes. “A man who could face down both the undergraduates at Harvard and . . . miners in Colorado could certainly meet the challenges of a Belgravia dinner party or a gallery opening in Chelsea. Fortified by renewed self-confidence and toughened, both physically and mentally, by his months in North America, Wilde henceforth would look inward rather than outward for his sense of achievement.”