Introducing the Dandy to the New World - Oscar Wilde visits America, January 2nd 1882 - December 27th 1882

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

25 Pages, Grade: 1,00


A. The concept of travel – ranging from mankind’s first step into the Unknown to the transatlantic exchanges of the nineteenth century

The concept of travel is as old as mankind itself. In the very beginning, of course, travelling did not simply take place for enjoyment or education, but to satisfy basic needs such as food and shelter. When Man finally began to settle in certain areas, travelling still meant going shorter or longer distances to obtain food, water and other valuable items. First on foot, then through domestication mainly by horse, and finally, in many shapes and forms, by a seemingly endless possibility of modern transportation, with the invention of the steam engine all the way to 21st century solar and electricity-powered vehicles. Although, when talking about the nineteenth century, one could only rely on ocean liners running on steam and the locomotive in order to travel great distances. Such inventions enabled mankind not only to become much better organized and grow together in an economic way, but they also allowed the people to take journeys to far-away places and travel abroad as only dignitaries and statesmen could do. However, the concept of travel was no longer focused on obtaining supplies or being away on business, it now was able to unfold in many ways more. People travelled for pleasure, were anxious to meet and experience new things, get to know exotic cultures, manners and traditions. The single most important discovery that prompted such desire not just to explore, but later also to travel, is regarded by most experts as the beginning of the modern age: Christopher Columbus sets out to sea in order to find a new passage route to India. Instead, it was America he had discovered in early October 1492. That is how far back we can trace the so-called New World. New it was indeed to the many generations of explorers, conquerors and other interested visitors, mainly being of European origin in the centuries to come; from the Spanish Conquistadores in their quest for wealth and power, to the Pilgrim Fathers, experiencing religious persecution and in search of their City upon a Hill[1], a reference often used in a very similar way even 300 years later by the former actor and President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

From these historic points we return to the already mentioned nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution had changed many parts of Europe: factories and steel mills were shooting up out of the ground, striving to be second to none in an economic way, only having to share the throne with the also dominating agricultural sector.

Countries in continental Europe, Great Britain and also the United States of America, quickly adapting to the modern ways of trade, production and the newly discovered wealth, were all just beginning to reach their industrial and economic potential. The exchange between nations and countries grew and grew over the years , entangling the peoples more and more with each other. In our modern times, largely due to the Internet, cell phones with camera and photo capabilities and many other technological gadgets, there are no more uncharted territories, no undiscovered far away islands or regions, no more surprises for the own eye to behold. However, about 200 years ago, crossing the Atlantic Ocean, starting out with a regular sailing packet in 1816, stepping up to first class cabins only eleven years later and ,in about 13 years time, being able to offer a fifteen-day steamship passage, there was still plenty the European and also the American eyes could feast on.[2] Both sides were curious of each other, in their respective ways. The Europeans were attracted to the concept of freedom and democracy, whereas Americans were fascinated by things the first arrivals of the now entitled Old World had left behind on purpose for a fresh start, such as very old traditions and customs or simply just the sense of overall “history”; something the young nation had not yet come to experience. In this new kind of economic, political and especially cultural exchange lies the foundation for the so-called Grand Alliance, also known as the Special Relationship.[3] This extraordinary partnership exists still to this day, specifically between the United Kingdom and the United States. However, many travellers going abroad, especially Americans, did not necessarily distinguish between the various European countries, perhaps only in a rather basic way, with Britain as the “overthrown parent”, France as an ally in the idea of revolution, Italy as the centre of Catholicism and Greece as the one true origin of democracy.[4] So, as one can imagine, there was much to explore and experience. For an American, travelling to the homeland of his or her parents or even grandparents was very much different from European circumstances. For many generations of Germans, Italians or Poles it was perfectly normal still living in the same house, town or village the family had always been. One can only imagine the vast possibilities of travelling to countless places, on both sides of the Atlantic. Of course not every average person at that time was able to embark on such a journey, compared to today’s standards of reasonable charter flights and cruise ship voyages to any spot on the globe.

All people learning of these new ways of connecting with new cultures, manners and traditions wanted to be part of it, not just those born into wealth, power and royalty. There were no television sets or camera crews that could send unseen images around the world by the push of a button. Only the images of those who had been able to experience them brought them back home and then told stories, wrote books or painted pictures. This is where the core of bringing the respective cultures closer together lies. Many travellers, or “passionate pilgrims” as Henry James referred to them,[5] were embarking on adventurous journeys, to the New World as well as the Old World. Since many such new arrivals were very curious of the unknown elements which were ahead of them, a certain “group of visitors” had come exactly for this reason in order to bring back countless images, impressions and experiences and share them with all people back home. This group consisted of the artists, made up of painters, writers and poets. So, in this respect, there also existed a cultural and intellectual exchange, fortunately not just on a political and economic level. The American art is a good example: even though it had flourished and grown in the nineteenth century, many American painters had still been going overseas to Europe, work as apprentices and then return to the United States in order to open up and found new schools and implement new styles. Especially then, when the American melting-pot was reaching its peak, many foreign- born artists took part in creating some of the most treasured and beloved paintings portraying the landscapes and patriotic embodiments the United States consists; artists like the German-born Albert Bierstadt (The Last of the Buffalo, 1889) and Emanuel Leutze (Washington crossing the Delaware, 1849-50).[6]

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Pic. 1 & 2: The two famous paintings by the German artists Bierstadt and Leutze.

But of course not only painters committed themselves to bringing American images to life. Pictures may speak a thousand words, yet words can have just as deep an impact in forms of poems, essays and novels. Many other writers had also been successful in portraying America in a fictional way without even having set foot on its soil, such as Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare and Rousseau. On the other hand, it was also possible in reversed roles, for an American not having to go to Europe and imagine what it was like, as the scene from Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit proves when the young Chuzzlewit asks an American General if he had ever been in England and the General replies “In print I have, not otherwise”.[7]

The vast expansion of the United States, all across the continent to the Pacific, down to California and Texas throughout the nineteenth century did bring the “physical” frontier to an end, although this had produced a wide range of mythological figures such as Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock and of course Daniel Boone. Next to these first heroes and metaphors of nineteenth century American literature, the issues of slavery, democracy and also the Enlightenment were the dominant topics at the time.[8] Still, there was yet another element of literature evolving, on the rise and soon to be one of the most popular types of writing the nineteenth century had to offer. It could be characterised as a sort of “market gap” in the concept of travelling and writing; a crossover one might call it. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has produced probably one of the most popular and widespread pieces in this direction of writing when he described in great detail his journeys in Italy taking place from 1786 to 1788, capturing every feeling, impression and thought in his travel diaries. The key word finally reappears: travel. Not only did many writers now embark on great adventures across the Big Pond and vice versa to go and find a certain event to bring back with them, but they fully understood and applied the universal phrase ‘ Carpe Diem ’; seizing not only the day, but every moment they deemed important and unique while travelling worth putting down on paper. As fast-paced and energetic this era of industrial power, technological advancement and vast cultural exchanges was, it will not come as a surprise to know that in the nineteenth century such tales and images of travel writers had quickly become a staple of the European book market.[9] However, not only the Europeans were able to experience the life, nature and culture of the New World and then bring them to life back home, suited for their fellow Old World citizens.

Various representatives of American literature also were very successful in combining European myths with American settings, the most significant examples being Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, both written by a pioneer of another new literary form known as the short story, Washington Irving.[10]

Since there are so many possibilities to choose from when talking about writers and poets from both sides perfecting the concept of transatlantic mythology, for example Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1845) and Franz Kafka’s Amerika (1927)[11], the main focus here shall be concentrated on one great mind of the international literary community. The visitor from the Old World is to be a grand representative of Aestheticism in his time and a kind of man the young United States had not yet come to know: Oscar Wilde of Irland. His tour of America will be looked upon at certain key points, emphasising his own impressions, opinions, matters with the press and the American people themselves, followed by a conclusion of his either successful or failed mission to educate the citizens of the New World on art and life.

B. Bunthorne in Boston and lilies in Leadville - the ‘Apostle of Aestheticism’ travels across the continent

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Only seldom had any person arriving in the United States for the first time left such a historic and legendary impression by having “nothing to declare but his genius”.[12] Apart from this unorthodox statement, Oscar Wilde’s arrival in New York City on January 2nd, 1882 from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Arizona (pictured right) had already begun in a rather unfamiliar and surprising manner: right off the boat, local reporters did not, as perhaps expected, simply enquire about his purpose in the New World. Wilde, however, did answer this by announcing his lectures and ambitions for writing a play on Nihilism, but with the reporters growing bored of him explaining the fundamentals of aestheticism, much more lively and irrelevant questions arose, for example how the Irishman preferred his eggs and bath water temperature, when he usually gets up in the morning and the way he goes about trimming his finger nails.[13] So far, Oscar Wilde’s impression of America must have been quite irritating, given the nature of his visit.

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The British opera Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan had opened on April 23rd 1881 in London and was later moved to the newly built Savoy Theatre, with the builder and producer coming together in one person, Richard D’Oyly Carte[14] (pictured left). The opera focused on the satirizing of aestheticism, with Wilde being caricatured in the role of the Fleshly Poet, Bunthorne. With the already successful piece also opening in New York the same year on September 22nd, Carte’s American representative, Colonel W.F. Morse, had the brilliant idea of supporting the popular satire on the Aesthetic Movement by introducing the American public to its leading figure, namely Oscar Wilde himself.[15]

One could categorize this as perhaps the first major “Public relations tours” surrounding a literary celebrity. All across the continent, from Ohio to New Orleans, the word was spreading of “the real Bunthorne”, “the silly poet that eats flowers” coming to grace the American people with his presence.[16] Long before Wilde’s arrival, even before Patience, had there been praise for the main representative of the Aesthetic Movement, such as the salute to his first book of poems in late June 1881:


[1] c.f. Malcolm Bradbury, Dangerous Pilgrimages. Transatlantic Mythologies & the Novel (London: Secker & Warburg 1995), 4

[2] c.f.: Bradbury, 7.

[3] c.f.: Bradbury, 2.

[4] c.f.: Bradbury, 8.

[5] c.f.: Bradbury, 9.

[6] c.f.: Hans-Peter Wagner, A History of British, Irish and American Literature (Trier: WVT, 2003), 287.

[7] c.f.: Bradbury, 6.

[8] c.f.: Wagner, 286.

[9] c.f.: Bradbury, 9.

[10] c.f.: Wagner, 309-310.

[11] c.f.: Bradbury, 12.

[12] c.f.: Hesketh Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde ( London: Methuen & Company 1946), 59.

[13] c.f.: Lloyd Lewis / Henry J. Smith, Oscar Wilde discovers America ( New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company 1964), 31-32.

[14] English talent agent, theatrical impresario and hotelier, May 3rd 1844 – April 3rd 1901.

[15] c.f.: Merlin Holland, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (London: Fourth Estate Ltd. 2000), 123.

[16] c.f.: Lewis / Smith, 3.

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Introducing the Dandy to the New World - Oscar Wilde visits America, January 2nd 1882 - December 27th 1882
University of Bamberg
The works and trials of Oscar Wilde
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introducing, dandy, world, oscar, wilde, america, january, december
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Jerry Paramo (Author), 2008, Introducing the Dandy to the New World - Oscar Wilde visits America, January 2nd 1882 - December 27th 1882, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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