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Oscar Wilde In America

a selected resource of oscar wilde's visits to america

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john cooper
In conversation with Walter W. Walker in 2002

Where are you from?

I am British, born in the north-west of England in a old town [now a city] called Preston, which is about 30 miles from the larger cities of Liverpool and Manchester.

What's your occupation/profession?

I was a career Chartered Surveyor in the UK and abroad but more recently have founded my own businesses including a Bermuda exporting company and freelance web design. My passion for Oscar Wilde borders on an occupation.

How long have you lived in America?

Since 1999 but I had been a frequent visitor to the States for many years before that.

What is your educational background?

After graduating from the University of Central Lancashire, I became a fully qualified member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

When were you first taught Oscar Wilde at public/private school or University? Or did you discover him on your own?

It goes back to high school. I remember we read The Importance of Being Earnest. I would have been about 13 or 14 at the time and the class took turns at reading the play out loud. I was amazed at its lightness, and at at the sharp and consistently witty repartee of the dialogue, especially received, as it was, by a teenage ear recently accustomed the then esoteric texts of Shakespeare or George Eliot. It was a memory that stuck with me until I rediscovered Wilde's life and other works many years later.

Is there a favorite play, novel, story, essay or poem?

His letters. Wilde was a prolific letter writer and over 1,500 of them survive in a collected edition. They are essentially the autobiography he never wrote. This is not to diminish any of his works - it's just that I feel that in the letters you get all the ingredients of great literature: character, incident, comedy, drama, tragedy, prose and poetry; plus, of course, his catastrophe and denouement.

What inspired you to start researching Wilde's time in New York?

The walking tour was the spur but I wanted to build a definitive body of knowledge about a specific area of Wilde's life. New York was the logical choice because I am resident nearby and Wilde spent a lot of time here, on a year-long lecture tour, a fact little known even in America.

Why do think he took up the tour?

Ostensibly he was promoting the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that ironically was lampooning his school of thought. But he also had something to say, a talent for saying it, and someone prepared to pay him for saying it.

Is there a well documented account of his time here?

Not really. I believe it was a formative period for Wilde, and well worth capturing, not only for the scholar, but for anyone interested a great period story. But successive biographers have recycled one or two familiar stories. And there was one book (now out-of-print) that dealt anecdotally with the whole tour of America and Canada. But there is no definitive source book for the year-long lecture tour, and certainly no single account of Wilde's time in and around New York, where Wilde lived and to where he returned.

Do you think this guided walking tour will fill this void?

I hope so. It has taken several years traversing leafy streets and dusty corridors to assemble the palette. The canvas is growing however, as occasionally I unearth pieces that weren't in the picture before. Also there is the possibility of a new book on the subject in the near future.

From your research, how do think New Yorkers received him?

It was a mixed reception. Wilde's arrival was much anticipated and from the moment he stepped off the boat he didn't disappoint. Wilde was received warmly by polite society, especially by ladies of fashion, and receptions and dinners were given in his honor. Conversely, he was subject to the ridicule of the press and the abuse of one or two paragons of Victorian virtue. Generally, people didn't know what to make of him, as he was, in many ways, ahead of his time.

Did he make friends here?

Most certainly. Wilde came with many letters of introduction and made friends of his own along the way; for example, he got along famously with Walt Whitman. Many people went out of their way to make Wilde's visit enjoyable and he shared their homes in the city and at the shore in the summer. Some friendships became quite lasting, particularly literary ones, and he had a lifelong association and respect for the pioneering New Yorker, Elisabeth Marbury, who was his agent in America.

How do you think they would receive him today?

Well he and they wouldn't be the same today. He'd certainly be a television celebrity - as Wilde was formative in the realization of fame for its own sake. And I believe he would be immensely popular - for his still-quotable wit, and still-popular works. But the world is now used to a lot worse than Oscar, and his considerate and dignified personality would prevent him from generating the same vitriol or scandal today.

What was the New York of Oscar's time all about?

It was a time of enterprise and immigration; of gaslight and horse-drawn carriages; but mostly it was time of cultural and social change: the Brooklyn Bridge was being completed, Edison as introducing electric lights, elevators were being installed in buildings, and fortunes were being made in railroads, steel and oil by names still famous today. But it was also a time of great poverty as well. At the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in 1883 the audience was estimated to be worth more than $500 million when the average daily wage in the tenements was no more than a dollar. But the gilded age was about to peak, and the growth of a commercial district downtown was to lead to a residential displacement of the wealthy. It was the beginning of the post-industrial era.

Do you think he had an influence on the city?

He certainly had an impact at the time: there were articles about him in the newspapers, cartoons of him in the periodicals, advertising featuring him and even songs written about him. But Oscar Wilde's lasting influence is wider than popular culture. He crucially influenced social and sexual diversity, and as New York has always prided itself on those traits, you could say that it is the city he has influenced the most.

Is there any comparing Oscar to other colorful artists that New York has played host to over the past 100 plus years—Dickens, James, Poe, Dylan Thomas, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs?

Unlike those you mention who made their names in, or before they came to, New York, Oscar was not established as a writer at the time of his visits. He was a fledgling artist trying to promote himself and his early plays, and his most famous works lay some way ahead. So while Wilde was not a New York writer in any sense, I do believe he visited the city at a very formative time. It is interesting note however, that Wilde did not become a writer of any specific place, and unlike the New York school, was more eclectic. He cannot be labeled. His poetry relied heavily on Greek learning, but his early plays are set in Russia and Italy. His Victorian novel is Gothic. And while the social comedies are utterly British, he also wrote a Biblical play in French. His children's stories are universal, as are the themes of his essays and criticism. And throughout his life he penned letters wherever he went, including a book length letter from prison, and a fine poem about prison life and social reform. So comparisons are not easily made.

Would Oscar have an appreciation for theatre that Broadway has become?

You have to remember the Broadway that Wilde knew was still very much Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. At his lecture on the Decorative Arts at Wallack's Theater in May of that year, Wilde's buttoned-down audience contained many debutantes and their maternal chaperones. I'm sure no one who was there that night listening to Wilde's view that vine leaves look noble in wallpaper, could have have predicted the recent Broadway offering The Vagina Monologues.

Nevertheless, it was Wilde, in defense of his only novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray) who said he did not recognize any morality in art. Just a sense of what was good or bad. So, I think he would have approved, certainly he would have appreciated the Full Monty! And as for the proliferation of the musical - I sense a reversal of morality. While today's blockbusters are purely good-natured entertainment, in 1882 Wilde himself was parodied and ridiculed by Gilbert & Sullivan in their comic opera Patience. So all-in-all, despite the change in times, there is surely enough diversity as well as classical theatre, for Wilde to appreciate, as long as he thought it well done.

Copyright, CSM Press, 2002.

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