Here’s an anniversary for you local history buffs: 132 years ago today, Oscar Wilde spoke here in Charleston on his extensive American lecture tour.
Wilde was a proponent of the Aesthetic Movement in art and design that was popular in the latter half of the 19th century. Aesthetes believed that art should be primarily concerned with beauty over any other objective.1 It was in part a reaction against the idea that art should be instructive, sentimental, or impart moral lessons.1 Wilde didn’t originate the idea, but he is possibly it’s best known proponent.
In 1881, Wilde received an invitation from Richard D’Oyly Carte, a New York theatrical producer who had successfully produced Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera satirizing the Aesthetic Movement.2 Carte also managed lecture tours, and he asked if Wilde would be interested in touring America.2 The success of the opera kindled public interest in Aestheticism, so Carte was looking to capitalize on the movement.2 Although he was not starving by any means, money was tight for Wilde and the tour looked like a lucrative proposition.2 After negotiations with booking agents in the US, they decided that he would deliver lectures rather than readings of his work.2 Wilde wanted to preach the gospel of Aestheticism, bringing his understanding of art to the hinterlands of America.
The tour was meant to last about four months long, but it was extended to nearly a full year because it was such a success.3 He traveled to dozens of cities, so many that Wilde scholars still debate his exact itinerary today.4
Early on the afternoon of July 7th, just after 1 p.m., a carriage rolled to a stop in front of the Charleston Hotel on Meeting Street (located at the site of present-day Bank of America building). Out of the carriage stepped Oscar Wilde:
“two hundred pounds of avoirdupois of aesthetic human flesh and bones done up in a mouse-colored velveteen shooting jacket and salt and pepper small clothes. The head was ornamented with long ambrosial locks of very dark hair, and capped with a broad brim, dim colored slouch hat, something out of the style of Buffalo Bill….’That’s him,’ cried Ingliss the barber, who had come out to see the sight, and there was a rush of the few persons who were loafing about the hotel in the direction of the show, while the store fronts in the immediate vicinity were speedily adorned with idle salesmen and drummers…. The Reporter who had been sent to describe the event caught himself whistling the refrain of which has late become so popular:
“Oscar dear, Oscar dear,
How utterly, flutterly, utter you are;
Oscar dear, Oscar dear,
I think you are awfully wild, ta-ta.”5
Later in the afternoon, the unnamed News and Courier reporter had a chance to interview Wilde in his rooms at the Hotel. Wilde presented quite a picture when the reporter entered Room III.
“The great aesthete was ‘lolling’ upon a sofa, his ambrosial locks parted in the middle resting upon a pillow, and his feet, ornamented with red-striped socks and sharp-pointed shoes, occupying the other end of the sofa. Mr. Wilde wore the same mouse-colored velveteen shooting jacket…and the same pepper-and-salt small clothes. The ferocious ‘Buffalo Bill’ slouch hat had been laid aside. From his collar there hung the ends of a salmon colored silk neck handkerchief while a pale violet-colored kerchief peeped out from the breast pocket of his coat.”5
On the difference between the North and the South, he declared:
“I like the Southern people, although you have let the Northern people get ahead of you in art. I think you are more adapted to the cultivation of art, I mean the decorative art. You are of a warmer temperament and of a more imaginative turn of mind, don’t you know. I should think you would turn your attention more to art. You have magnificent forests, beautiful flowers. What you want is more diversity.”5
On the fashion fad of the day in which ladies wore huge sunflowers (a native flower to South Carolina, but also a symbol of the Aesthetic Movement):
“I think that people are awakening to a sense of the beautiful. As you say, you have lived all your life among sunflowers, and never until now noticed anything beautiful in them. That is the mission of true art–to make us pause and look at a thing a second time.”5
On whether there is any truth to the rumor that is engaged to a Bostonian:
“Ah! That you know is one of those things which must always remain a vast mystery. But if a man is engaged to be married he shouldn’t come to the South.”5
The reporter also attended Wilde’s lecture that evening, held in Owens’ Academy of Music located at the corner King and Market where the Riviera Theater now stands.
“Perfectly self-possessed, earnest, yet never carried away, he talked rather than spoke, with a clearness of enunciation that enabled him to be heard in all parts of the house without once raising his voice above an ordinary conversational tone. The lecture was…on decorative art, its neglect by the people of the present day, our duty to restore its powers in life and how that duty is to be performed. The lecture lacked method, but abounded in beautiful descriptions, happy illustrations and poetic thought, while an occasional scintillation of humor was not wanting…. He finished and left the stage as quietly as he had entered, in the midst of a round of applause which was followed by subdued murmurs of approving comment as the audience dispersed.”5
Perhaps the best story from Wilde’s whirlwind visit to Charleston is found in his definitive biography by Richard Ellman.
“He would say later that in the South, whenever one mentioned anything, people would reply, ‘You should have seen it before the War.’ He had never felt what ruin war could bring about until one night in Charleston he turned to someone and said, ‘How beautiful the moon is!’ and had for reply. ‘You should have seen it, sir, before the War.'”6
Less than 24 hours in town and he could see right through our city’s self-centered crap. Bless you, Oscar dear, High Priest of the Aesthetes, wherever you are.
1. “Aestheticism.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 28 May 2014. 7 Jul 2014.
2. Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage, 1988., 50-153.
3. Ibid., 186.
4. Cooper, John. “The Lecture Tour of North America in 1882.” Oscar Wilde In America. 7 Jul 2014.
5. “Oscar Dear, Oscar Dear! The Original of ‘Bunthorne’ Appears in Charleston.” News and Courier [Charleston, SC] 8 Jul 1882: 4. An excerpt of this interview appeared in Hofer and Sharnhorst’s Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews and is available online as part of the Google Books project.
6. Ellman, 197n.