Thursday, May 25, 2017

Oscar Wilde in Kansas?

Oscar Wilde
Can you picture Oscar Wilde scheduling a speaking tour in Kansas?  Yet, in 1882 he arrived!  This week's blog owes a debt to Charles Harmon Cagle, whose full article can be found at  I have supplemented research found in Cagle's article with some of Wilde's quotes that I thought you would enjoy.

"I am so clever that sometimes I don't understand a single word of what I am saying."  

The population of Kansas rural areas has dwindled since the time of Isaac Werner and smaller cities have shrunk, leaving emptier rural landscapes and a few larger cities.  However, in the 1880s great curiosity about the "wide open spaces" attracted foreign visitors.  Even small cities built opera houses that accommodated performances of all sorts.  In 1882 the famous English writer and lecturer Oscar Wilde came to Kansas.  Not everyone was impressed.

Pessimist:  One who, when he has the choice of two evils, chooses both.

Oscar Wilde spent only five days in Kansas, arriving in Leavenworth on April 19, 1882, and departing following his final lecture in Atchinson on April 24.  The opinion of the reviewer in Leavenworth was immediately apparent from the headline:  "His Lecture Falls Flat."   The reviewer of another Leavenworth paper briefly described the lecture:  "The famous aesthete, Oscar Wilde, who lectured to and bored such a small audience ..."

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious."

After traveling to Topeka, Wilde was interviewed by a more sympathetic reporter, who wrote:  "Mr. Wilde has a handsome soft womanish face, around which his long wavy hair fell in the finest decorative art.  He is a very pleasant conversationalist, has a wonderful command of words, and expresses himself in a very clear lucid manner, much contrasted with the soulful utterances of his burlesquers."  However, as for the lecture, he called it, " unrelieved waste of words, words, words; like a great desert of sand with the edges all around touching the sky and no green thing in sight."

"Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter."

In Lawrence the reaction was not hateful but clearly tepid, describing Wilde's delivery as a "...not disagreeable sing-song, perhaps what an aesthete would call rhythm."  The Atchinson newspaper, however, held nothing back, reprinting a Kansas City paper's description of "...a tale told by an idiot, full of sound, and trash, signifying nothing."  But adding, "People will, of course, continue to go to see him as they do to view sideshow curiosities and monstrosities."

"Those who find ugly meaning in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault."

A different Atchinson reporter suggested:  "Mr. Wilde should dress like a gentleman, cut his hair, learn to speak plain, stop calling everything 'lovely' and 'joyous,' or 'stoopid' and 'dreadful,' and so convince the world of the existence of the good stuff there really is in him, buried beneath a heavy weight of idle affection."

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

So, who was this Englishman that got such treatment?  Born in 1854, a decade after Isaac Werner, Wilde was a writer of great variety--novels, essays, plays, and poetry; however, he may be best remembered for his unorthodox dress and his clever commentary, as are indicated by the photograph and quotes scattered throughout this blog.  At a young age he became a spokesman for aestheticism, and even in college he attracted attention by decorating his room with peacock feathers, sunflowers (which became a symbol for aestheticism), and blue China.  Mocked as that era's equivalent of a "sissy," he surprised four fellow students who physically attacked him by defending himself effectively.

"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Wilde's trip to Kansas was only part of an American lecture tour which began in January of 1882.  His lectures were received more warmly in places other than Kansas, and the originally scheduled four months were extended to nearly a year.  His flamboyant appearance and his literary successes, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, are part of his enduring fame, but also the scandal of his personal life, which lead to imprisoment for two years 1895-1897, is part of his reputation.  

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes."

After leaving prison he made his home in France, where he died in 1900.  He is buried outside Paris, having died of cerebral meningitis which may have been traceable back to the incredibly harsh treatment he suffered at Pentonville Prison.

" the diary that we all carry about with us."

Isaac Werner must  have known of Oscar Wilde, although none of his books were mentioned among Isaac's library.

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."  

Isaac Werner believed in education, just as I do, but it is sadly true that we do seem compelled to learn some hard lessons for ourselves that past generations would have been all too glad to have taught us, had we only  been willing to learn from both their wisdom and their mistakes.

"Always forgive your enemies--nothing annoys them so much."

No comments: