Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America

In 1882, three eminent Victorians attempted to conquer America. One was a Channel Islander who had lost favour with her lover, the Prince of Wales, after dropping ice cream down his neck. The second was a seven-ton Sudanese who received 700 emotional letters on his departure, many enclosing buns. The third was a young Irish poet whose lectures on interior design and Gothic art formed an elaborate publicity stunt for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. All three have a claim on the cultural memory, but only one has guest-starred on The Simpsons.

Lillie Langtry played to full houses, but failed to convince anyone she was an actor; Jumbo the elephant was killed by a freight train and cut into profitable chunks by PT Barnum. Oscar Wilde made landfall an object of sceptical curiosity – a specimen of British aestheticism, shipped first-class across the Atlantic to cue up the punchlines of Patience. He paid obeisance to Langtry, denied being offered £200 to ride Jumbo down Broadway with a sunflower in his hand, and emerged in better condition than either. America was where Oscar Wilde became Oscar Wilde.

He arrived with his most celebrated aphorism: "I have nothing to declare but my genius." Say it today on passing through customs, and they'd shred your suitcase and snap on the surgical gloves. Roy Morris's account of Wilde's 260-day, 1,500-mile and 140-gig tour contains comparable scenes of humiliation. In Boston, 60 Harvard students minced down the aisle in black stockings and shoulder-length wigs. In Racine, Wisconsin, the thin, sniggering audience defeated him: Wilde cut short his lecture and went off for a fag. In Leadville, Colorado, however, he was a surprise hit with the miners, who lowered him down No 3 shaft in a rubber overall and plied him with whiskey cocktails. "I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause," he crowed. Declaring His Genius, unfortunately, merits no such response.

Morris is the editor of Military Heritage magazine. As you read his account of Wilde's campaign, it's easy to imagine the author using a croupier's rake to push a little Oscar across a map of the continent. Skirmish after skirmish is reported; background notes on the combatants are supplied, some untested for relevance; fact after fact is logged, and anything that looks too much like an idea is briskly avoided.

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