The Definitive Resource Of Oscar Wilde's Visits To America

The Modern Messiah

The Wasp, March 31, 1882 (G.F. Keller)

The cartoon above is entitled The Modern Messiah, and it appeared in the satirical magazine, The Wasp, on the eve of Wilde's third lecture in San Francisco.

When Wilde arrived in San Francisco he was greeted by thousands of people curious to see him. 

The cartoon shows such a crowd, but in satirical style, heavily featuring sunflowers, one of the floral emblems of the aesthetic movement; another, calla lilies, known to decorate Wilde's dinner table, serve as the donkey's ears.

Below is a glossary of some of the characters depicted.

Oscar Wilde

Shown arriving as a new messiah; cf. Zechariah 9:9: 

"... your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey". 

Wilde's sunflower is emblazoned with a dollar sign which reflects the accusation that his motivations were pecuniary.

The Donkey

Braying, and with sunflower saddle and lily ears, we are reminded of the epithet "ass-thete" that accompanied Wilde across America, but here the donkey symbolizes his visit to San Francisco: attached to the tail is the $5,000 that Wilde was reportedly paid for his series of lectures in California; around the neck, padlocked to the conveyance, is an image of Wilde's California promoter Charles E. Locke. The words on the padlock are "Bush St. Theatre", where Locke was manager. Also, at Bush and Montgomery Streets was Platt's Hall where Wilde lectured four times.

Man With the Goatee Beard

Charles Crocker (1822—1888) railroad executive who founded the Central Pacific Railroad that took Wilde on his journey to California. In his 2018 biography of Wilde, Matthew Sturgis identified Crocker’s daughter “Hattie” as a probable recipient of a putative love letter from Wilde in 1882.

Man With White Hair

Skulking somewhat appropriately behind proceedings is Ambrose Bierce (1842—c. 1914), who penned a relentless attack on Wilde in The Wasp, March 31, 1882, the text of which can be found at Wilde's lecture on April 1.

Man at Far Left With Beard

Isaac Smith Kalloch (1832—1887) 18th Mayor of San Francisco serving from December 1, 1879 to December 4, 1881.

Man With Long White Beard 

(behind sunflower back left)

Maurice Carey Blake (1815—1897) 19th Mayor of San Francisco, serving from December 5, 1881 to January 7, 1883.

Short Man With Mustache

Daniel O'Connell (1849—1899) poet, actor, writer and journalist, co-founder of the Bohemian Club where Wilde was feted and where he had his portrait painted. The painting of Wilde hung in the club until being lost in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. O'Connell was the grand-nephew of Daniel O'Connell (1775—1847) the famed Irish orator and politician.

Man With Broken Sunflower

Possibly impresario Tom Maguire.

Boys in the Foreground

Newspaper sellers, one carrying The Wasp in which the cartoon appeared.

Chinese in the Background

While in San Francisco Wilde famously visited Chinatown and expressed his admiration of their decorative arts, such as delicate tea cups.

Oscar Wilde In America | © John Cooper, 2024