Oscar Wilde In America


A Selected Resource Of Oscar Wilde's Visits To America

Anything To Declare?


On December 24, 1881, Oscar Wilde sailed for America from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Arizona bound for New York. The reasons for his much-heralded visit seemed clear enough: to promote Gilbert & Sullivan's latest operetta, Patience, while conducting a series of lectures on subjects of his own choosing.


The ship arrived late on January 2, 1882, and lay at quarantine overnight. On the morning of January 3, the Arizona pulled into its dock and passengers headed for the customs shed at Castle Garden, which was the point of entry for visitors to NewYork and a major receiving station for immigrants prior to the opening of Ellis Island some ten years later.


Wilde was interviewed by an avid press while still on board. He told the New York Sun that he was disappointed in the Atlantic, a sentiment he repeated about Niagara Falls, and one that was much publicized and ridiculed.


It was also on this occasion, while at Customs, that Oscar Wilde is reputed to have made one of his most oft-repeated quotations: that he nothing to declare except his genius. But did he really say this, and what is the source of the quotation?


Lodging


There is some confusion about Wilde lodging upon arrival.


A newspaper report [1] says that after disembarking Wilde's party 'drove off to the Brunswick Hotel', although this may have been only for breakfast as Wilde's manager, Col. W.F. Morse, recalled many years later [2]: 

In an interview with the Boston Globe Wilde said, 'In New York there were about a hundred [reporters] a day. I had to leave my hotel and go to a private house when I wanted to push along my work'. [3] Wilde's refuge was a private apartment on 28th Street. The location was ostensibly to be kept secret, although he still did give the occasional interview from this address [4]. 


It is not clear whether Wilde checked into a hotel, although this seems likely, and used the house intermittently as required for writing. Neither has the hotel itself been identified, but there is a strong possibility that it was the Grand Hotel (the building is extant at 31st Street and Broadway). This assumption derives from the sometimes unreliable 1936 source book for Wilde's tour Oscar Wilde Discovers America: 1882 in which the desk clerk of the Grand, reportedly a Michael Toner, gave details of Wilde's arrival and stay to the authors in preparation for the book, albeit over 50 years after the event [5]. It is possible that Toner might have been remembering a later stay as Wilde is known to have stayed at the Grand on at least two occasions that year on return visits to New York City.


New York City


In 1882 New York was a gas-lit city of a million people living through a time of growth that encompassed the gentrification of a commercial district around the Ladies' Mile, and residential displacement as the city's wealthy moved uptown.


The Statue of Liberty was not yet in the harbor, the Brooklyn Bridge was still being constructed; the tallest building was Trinity Church. Such was Wilde's milieu. With his first lecture on January 9th at Chickering Hall thus began an almost year-long lecture tour of America.


© John Cooper


[1]  New York Evening Post , January 4, 1882, 4.

[2]  The Writings of Oscar Wilde (A.R. Keller & Co., 1907, 76), Ch. IV American Lectures by W.F. Morse. 

[3]  Boston Globe,  January 29, 1882, 5. 

[4]  New-York Tribune , Jan 8, 1882, 7. 

[5] Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, 1936, p.35.




Cartoon waving goodbye to Oscar Wilde

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This web site was created by John Cooper based on 30 years of private study and countless hours in libraries and online since 2002. He is solely responsible for all original research, writing, editing, and web design. 


The site has been used by scholars, institutions, and the media around the world and is the largest online resource on the life and times of Oscar Wilde in America. 


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