DUBIOUS QUOTATION: I have nothing to declare except my genius.
There is no primary source evidence that Wilde made this statement.
One of the most celebrated quotations by anyone is this remark attributed to Oscar Wilde at New York Customs at the start of his lecture tour of America in 1882.
But the alleged remark has always been problematic. First, it seems too suspiciously convenient to have been made in response to a question too easily enjoined, and at the most opportune moment for publicity when Wilde was entering America. Besides, it would have been out of character for Wilde, particularly at that time, to be publicly arrogant.
So what is the origin of the quotation?
There is no contemporary evidence for the remark from 1882 when it was allegedly made, although several of Wilde’s other remarks were seized upon by the press at the time and widely, often immediately, reported.
Nor does Wilde mention it in more than a hundred interviews given by him to American journalists in 1882, many soon after his arrival where he was usually quoted. Neither does Wilde make any reference to the remark in any of the more than 1500 letters of his that survive, including early examples from New York that are often detailed. Indeed, there is no written or oral record of the remark by anyone else during Wilde’s lifetime
When Wilde died in November, 1900, it did not take long for the first biography to be published. This was: Oscar Wilde; the story of an unhappy friendship, (1902) by his devoted friend Robert Sherard. The biography also does not mention the incident, yet it does report the “disappointed in the Atlantic” comment that Wilde did make upon arrival.
Another biography: In Memoriam, Oscar Wilde (1905) by André Gide, Franz Blei, and Ernest La Jeunesse, refers to Wilde’s genius several times (pp. 49, 87, 91, 101) and even quotes Wilde on French customs officers! (p. 55); but still there is no mention of the New York genius/Customs incident.
The two earliest references to the remark each bear the hallmark of Wilde’s literary executor, Robert Ross. The first occurs in a small publication edited by Christopher Millard entitled The Oscar Wilde Calendar (1910), [Mason 637-9] and the second was Oscar Wilde A Critical Study by Arthur Ransome (1912), p. .64. [Mason 666].
ROBERT ROSS. ELLIOTT & FRY, 1914 © NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON.
It is just possible that the story existed before Ross was implicated in the Millard and Ransome sources. Perhaps it had a life of urban mythology, having undergone a corruption or misattribution similar to several of Wilde’s other remarks. One is reminded that much history, especially quotation, is apocryphal: too good not to have been said.
It would also be a seductive notion if any oral history of the incident included Wilde himself, as this invites the possibility that Wilde, even if he did not make the remark at New York Customs, might later have told Ross that he had done so, or between them they playfully imagined he had done so. It would not be unlike Wilde to revel in the public’s belief of a rumor about himself.
But there is no evidence for any of this speculation. The probability remains that the remark originated with Ross, no mean wit himself, which he may have created either intentionally apropos of Wilde or innocently misremembered from a conversation with him. Lacking contemporary evidence it is not possible to be definitive and reasonable inference must still be towards doubt.
For an expanded and illustrated review of these sources see my blog article: Something To Declare.
© John Cooper
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