Sunday, January 06, 2013

Wilde Ride

Jan 3, 2013 - The Book Beast

Oscar Wilde spent a year in the U.S. and met the likes of Walt Whitman and Henry James. Anthony Paletta on what the writer learned.

There is not a shred of proof that Oscar Wilde quipped, upon entering the United States, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” But, given his record of wit, newspaper publishers seem to have been quite happy to simply print the legend—and who could ever blame them?
Oscar Wilde
Author Oscar Wilde sits for a portrait during his tour of Canada and North America in 1882. (Corbis)
It is oddly fitting that the most prominent relic of Wilde’s 1882 tour of the United States is possibly apocryphal, given that the actual substance of the tour seems, short of a few narrowly-missed meetings, the stuff of dime novels and historical fiction. Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, Roy Morris, Jr.’s delightful account of the tour, sets a visitor from one realm (Wilde) careening into one that seems impossibly separate (early Gilded Age America); not merely drinking elderberry wine with Walt Whitman in Camden, or holding chilly conversation with Henry James in Washington, but lecturing in Saint Josephs, Missouri, two weeks after the death of Jesse James, calling on an elderly Jefferson Davis at his Mississippi plantation, and falling prey to a con-man in New York’s Tenderloin (encompassing what is now parts of the Flatiron, Garment and Theatre districts). With a few more fireworks, literal or carnal, you’d be tempted to shelf it in the fiction aisle alongside E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. There are no couplings between, say, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman, but Wilde did later note, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.”

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