Oscar Wilde’s lecture tour around the US in 1882 is well known and oft-mentioned and hardly a footnote. It was a considerable commercial success and the stories of him endearing himself to a wide range of audiences including Colorado miners are standard. However, he received a deluge of vitriol and criticism from the press wherever he went, and this has received less attention.
In a piece in the Brooklyn Eagle in January 1882, entitled “Mr Wilde’s Thrilling Legs”, Wilde, ‘estheticism’, the British aristocracy and indeed Britain itself, were ridiculed and reviled in a way that was reasonably typical of the response of newspapers.
Beginning with his appearance, it noted that ‘this intense young’ was well known for ‘a habit of wearing very decollete shirts, and exposing to an extent considered at least unconventional, the snowy whiteness of his chest, but it was not expected that he would abbreviate his nether garments to any extent in order to display the symmetrical beauty of his legs’. His enlarged ‘lappels’, knee breeches, black silk stockings, and silver buckles had the desired effect on the ‘rapturous maidens of both sexes whose eager eyes danced from his legs to his beautiful throat and back again’. This, commented the Eagle, ‘undoubtedly afforded a rich treat, overwhelming their most disordered and extravagant anticipations by his revelations of carnal beauty.’
The reporter was less overwhelmed than the audience either by the orator or the set. Of the latter, he noted that: ‘The walls were of pink, relieved with preposterous Cupids Indulging in impossible feats of agility and marksmanship….From an antique bronze pitcher placed upon an ebony a sunflower of unhealthy appearance rose above a collection of choice ferns and grasses’. He appeared even less impressed by Wilde himself who ‘read in a dull monotone, failing of emphasis, neglectful of his periods and drawling altogether as if he bad been down the road or somewhere else and caught a bad cold’.
The Eagle made much of Wilde as a reflection of the dissolution and decline of those living on the other side of the Atlantic. Convinced that Wilde was a ‘sincere flamboyant imbecile’ rather than the ‘keen witted satirist’ his agents marketed him as, they easily found explanations for him in the behaviour of a British aristocracy whose minds were ‘enfeebled with generations of wantoness and idleness’ and whose ‘worn out, exhausted natures concentrate themselves on the languid adoration of formal beauty’. And these needs for a cult of beauty were, proclaimed the Eagle, met by the ‘Swinburnes, Rossettis, Burne Jones and a pack of people who are never happy unless they are reading erotic verses or looking at the bare arms and legs of professional beauties’. The pleasant vices of Rome, it said, were being revived in Europe.
Wilde was therefore a symptom of this, a charlatan and a boor who ‘has come across the water to scoop in the dollars of credulous and curious Americans’. Noting that the ‘fervidly fervid’ response of the audiences was ‘too too’ and ‘utterly utterly’ silly, the Eagle looked forward to Mr Wilde’s eventual departure, on his well developed calves’, to Australia, hopefully never to return.