“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered, I myself would say that it had merely been detected.” ~ Oscar Wilde

Did you know that Oscar Wilde made star appearances in Providence, Pawtucket, Newport and North Attleboro?  In 1882 he traveled across America dressed in knee breeches, velvet jacket, floppy ties and a “wide-awake” hat as he lectured on good taste and the mores of the Aesthetic Movement.  He was widely ridiculed as the icon of the Aesthetes in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride and was a popular target for journalists and cartoonists.  Wilde was invited to lecture across America as a real-life Bunthorne to promote the opera to American audiences.

Bunthorne courtesy of The Operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan (Philadelphia, 1894)

Prior to his American tour at 27 years old. Wilde had only published one “thin” volume of poetry and written a play, Vera, or the Nihilists that he was unable to get produced.  He gained fame as the icon of the Aesthetic Movement in London through cartoons such as the Six-Mark Teapot by George du Maurier. (pictured below from Punch, Oct. 30th 1880)  This cartoon is based on Wilde’s famous remark while still a student at Oxford that “he found it harder and harder every day to live up to his blue china.”  It wasn’t until 1892 that Wilde attained success as a playwright with Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Aesthetic Bridegroom: It is quite consummate, is it not? Intense Bride: It is indeed! Oh Algernon, let us live up to it!

In America, Wilde kept up a grueling speaking schedule lecturing in a new town every few days as he criss-crossed the country, for a total of 150 stops in the course of a year.  He lectured to small crowds in towns such as Leadville, Colorado and Omaha, Nebraska and in front of 2,000 people in cities like Boston, New York, and Chicago.  In Providence, Wilde stayed at the Narragansett Hotel, and lectured in a maroon velvet suit and black stockings on the “Decorative Arts” to a small crowd at Low’s Grand Opera House.  A few days later, on September 28th, he spoke in Pawtucket and the local newspaper reported “Oscar Wilde, a soft young Englishman with shrewdness enough to profit by the American weakness for paying to be humbugged, spoke to a small audience in Music Hall, Friday evening last.” (Pawtucket Gazette & Chronicle, Oct. 6, 1882)

The exhibition Gazing at Lilies celebrates Wilde’s American tour with a selection of books, manuscripts, photographs and decorative art objects.  We are grateful to our colleagues at the following institutions for their generous loans to the exhibit: Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center, John Hay Library at Brown University, Newport Historical Society and the Rhode Island Historical Society. The exhibition is on view through April 30th, 2012.

Raven-ous thanks our guest blogger, Kate Wodehouse, Collections Librarian