MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Walk on the Wilde Side

Wilde

Creating quite the stir was of course second nature to Oscar Wilde, and he set many tongues wagging throughout the course of his extensive North American tour in 1882. Nowadays we have complex PR machines. Back then it was Oscar giving interviews to the local papers to generate buzz for his series of lectures on “the science of the beautiful.” He set the tone immediately upon disembarking in New York after his less-than-pleasing encounter with the Atlantic Ocean by (allegedly) proclaiming to the customs agent: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

Wilde ended up making some 140 appearances at cities and towns across 15,000 miles of the continent, alighting in gilded age salons and mining town saloons alike. Anthony Paletta sums up some of the press reaction to his first lecture, in New York, billed as having something to do with the “English Renaissance”:

[It] seems to have faltered in its prepared elements and shone in its improvisational bits, attracting praise from some quarters (“The Cincinnati Enquirer”) and dismissal from others (“The Nation,” grumpy even in the 1880s, observed that Wilde “can hardly succeed in this country”). “The New York Times” commented on the “aesthetic and pallid young men in dress suits and banged hair” in the rear of the venue — banged-hair an attribution with some whiff of the homosexual demimonde at the time.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

Caricature from the San Francisco Wasp, March 31, 1882.

But no one quite matched the savage disdain penned by the journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce following Wilde’s first lecture at Platt’s Hall in San Francisco in March:

That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it—says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding.

The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jelly-fish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire. Not only has he no thought, but no thinker. His lecture is mere vebal ditchwater—meaningingless, trite and without coherence. It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse. Moreover, it is obviously his own; he had not even the energy and independence to steal it. And so, with a knowledge that would equip and idiot to dispute with a cast-iron dog, and eloquence to qualify him for the duties of a caller on a hog-ranche, and an imagination adequate to the conception of a tom-cat, when fired by contemplation of a fiddle-string, this consummate and star-like youth, missing everything his heaven-appointed functions and offices, wanders about, posing as a statute of himself, and, like the sun-smitten image of Memnon, emitting meaningless murmurs in the blaze of women’s eyes. He makes me tired.

And this gawky gowk has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti and Morris—this dunghill he-hen would fly with eagles. He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of Keats. He is the leader, quoth’a, of a renaissance in art, this man who cannot draw–of a revival of letters, this man who cannot write! This little and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicked wits of London, haling him dazed from his obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his word. Mr. Wilde is pinnacled upon a dazzling eminence but the earth still trembles to the dull thunder of the kicks that set him up.

Today’s shock jocks have nothing on Ambrose Bierce. But just what stirred him to such an extremity of umbrage?

Filed under: literary criticism, literature

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