Oscar Wilde’s West

Portrait of Oscar WildeBy Jan Wellington

Of the countless stories, novels, and plays inspired by and featuring Oscar Wilde, a significant number bear the title, “The Wilde West.”  One of these–a 1988 farce by Charles Marowitz–is set in Leadville, Colorado, during Wilde’s lecture tour of North America in 1882. In it, Wilde appears for his lecture in a saloon, only to find it occupied by the trial of a handsome young bank robber–a member of Jesse James gang.  Wilde, turned lawyer, successfully defends the guilty thief while Belle Starr and outlaw Jesse debate the relative merits of their autobiographies.  In his preface, Marowitz explains that the play “arbitrarily yokes together” the myths of Oscar Wilde and the Old West.  But as it turns out, the playwright’s intuitive link between Wilde and the West was well founded.

In late 1881, Wilde, with a volume of poems under his belt and a reputation as the “Apostle of Aestheticism,” arrived for the tour designed to promote the Gilbert and Sullivan musical Patience, the cultivation of beauty, and himself. Wilde both advertised and embodied the aesthetic movement with its scorn for middle-class Victorian life and the uglier effects of the Industrial Revolution.  Americans, already prone to Anglomania, were not only riding the wave of their own aesthetic revival, but were aware that Gilbert and Sullivan’s languishing, lily-loving character Bunthorne was a caricature of Wilde.  Flocking to see him, they received his lectures with both ridicule and praise.  Whatever their reaction, Americans were seldom indifferent to their guest, who spoke in more than 150 venues over the course of a year and became one of the top money-makers on the flourishing lecture circuit.

Over the course of the tour, as Wilde cemented his celebrity, he became increasingly fond of Americans; “[a] less likely love match,” writes James Simmons, “could scarcely be imagined.”  But we can begin to imagine it by attending to a lecture Wilde gave on his return to England in which he declared, “English people are far more interested in American barbarism than they are in American civilization . . . . Rocky Mountains charm them more than riotous millionaires; they have been known to prefer buffaloes to Boston.  Why should they not?” Wilde goes on to applaud “the Far West with its grizzly bears and its untamed cow-boys, its free open-air life and its free open-air manners, its boundless prairie and its boundless mendacity!”–a declaration which beautifully reveals what he and the West had in common despite their differences.  In short, both were extreme, eccentric, expansive, and elusive of constraint.  One might even say that at the time of his visit, Wilde and the West were myths in process.

On reaching California at the westward end of his odyssey, Wilde told a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner that “the further West one comes, the more there is to like . . .” We get a sense of what he meant in a comment to a journalist in Denver: “The West has kept itself free and independent while the East has been caught and spoiled with many of the flirting follies of Europe.”  Not the least of these “follies” was the stifling conformity which Wilde abhorred, preferring a region and a people that tolerated–even celebrated–eccentricity.  We see signs of this openness in Omaha, then a rugged cow-town and the first American city whose press gave the Aesthete unanimous accolades.  While reporters in more easterly cities were mixed in their verdicts, devoting plentiful space and incredulity to the lecturer’s outlandish costume and long, wavy tresses, Omaha stressed his message. The Herald, for example, called Wilde’s lecture “a blistering rebuke to the materialism of the age and approved of  the simple and salutary thought underlying his strangeness.”  While this visitor’s strangeness was as indisputable in Nebraska as it was in Pennsylvania, for the former, eccentricity paled before simple, positive ideas such as Wilde’s about embracing art to enhance the quality of American life.

The West, of course, is a slippery phenomenon to define, but travelers seem to know when they have reached it.  For Wilde, in fact, the Midwest was not the real West; rather, it began in sight of the Rockies, whose irregular grandeur was matched by the corresponding rough, aesthetic appeal of its people: cowboys, outlaws, entrepreneurs, prostitutes, and miners in particular, with their lack of Eastern polish.  For Wilde and countless others, the West was the geographical and mental space where “civilization” gave way to “barbarism”–where classic American virtues like toughness, rugged individualism, and spacious freedom had not yet fallen prey to the industrial age.

Rugged individualism was likely not what Americans envisioned when they pictured Wilde as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Bunthorne, who, as the song goes, was a
most intense young man:

A soulful-eyed young man,
An ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical,
Out-of-the way young man! 

However, they discovered that, though “out-of-the-way” he might be, in some crucial respects he was anything but Bunthorne.  From the time Wilde disembarked in New York, Americans were surprised to observe that, despite his elegant hands and languid gestures, the Aesthete was a strapping young man who, offstage, ate and drank with gusto and spoke with genial frankness.  They learned that even his oft-ridiculed stage dress of black velvet jacket, lace cravat, silk knee breeches, and patent leather pumps could be understood in terms of pragmatics.  As Wilde explained, “When a man is going to walk or row, or perform feats which require a display of strength and muscle, the trousers are done away with and knee breeches are worn.”

Americans were discovering that indeed, Wilde was different, but different in a different way–a difference not only perceived but valued in the West.  After all, that quintessential westerner, the cowboy, enjoyed freedoms unique in Victorian America: intimacy with women outside of marriage, intimate (though not necessarily sexual) relationships with men, and even the playful donning of women’s garb.  To this alternative masculine subculture, their eccentric trans-Atlantic visitor would have seemed uncannily familiar, and thus it is no surprise that at least some Westerners found space in their tradition of individualism for one whose masculinity was complicated by a “feminine” aesthetic and appearance.

In truth, Wilde’s long tresses and outsized hats were not all that eccentric, for Americans had come to associate long hair on men with boldness and adventure. In the West, long hair distinguished masculine men like Wild Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer, and Buffalo Bill Cody.  In Denver, a reporter for the Times described Wilde in his flowing locks, wide-brimmed hat, and the long duster he had recently adopted as “not unlike a Texas ranger who had struck it rich.”  The Denver Republican declared approvingly “that if placed in a mining camp dance hall, [the Aesthete] would pass for a real bold, bad man.”

Indeed, frontier tradition placed a premium on its “bold, bad men” with their prowess at fighting, drinking, and cards.  Even before Wilde stopped in Colorado on his return from the west coast, he had proved himself up to such feats.  In San Francisco, he foiled an attempt by the Bohemian Club to ply him with liquor and prove him a “Nancy boy;” after outdrinking (and outtalking) them all, he was given a proud place in a group photograph of the club.  In the same city, he thwarted another attempt on his manhood by professing his ignorance of poker, bluffing bafflement, and then beating all challengers at the game.

In the course of his travels, the “bold, bad” Aesthete would encounter traces of the West’s quintessential anti-hero, the outlaw.  Not long before Wilde arrived in America, Pat Garrett had gunned down Billy the Kid and embarked on a tour to promote Billy’s biography.  Later, passing through Jesse Jame’s home town in Kansas, Wilde would learn that James himself had just been assassinated by a member of his own gang, an event that sent the town into mourning and scrambling to buy Jesse’s artifacts.  Well aware of the romantic appeal of the social outcast, the traveler wrote in a letter home that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes.”  In an eerie foreshadowing of his own fate, Wilde himself became an honorary member of the outlaw pantheon: in Omaha, a reporter for the Bee noted his resemblance to Big Nose George (Parrot), a train-robber associated with the James gang who, a year earlier, had been jailed and lynched in Wyoming.  Even in comparatively decorous Salt Lake City, Wilde would be affectionately dubbed “untamed Oscah,” and while he and the Latter-Day Saints had little in common, there is ample evidence that Westerners elsewhere recognized him as one of their own.

Which brings us back to where we began, with Wilde’s appearance in Leadville–a historic moment that scholars and other aficionados have elevated to the realm of myth, and where affinities between Wilde and the West converge. Despite an initial bout of altitude sickness, by show time the lecturer made a promising impression: a reporter noted that he “stumbled onto the stage with a stride more becoming a giant backwoodsman than an aesthete.”  According to Wilde in a letter home, while a few amongst his audience of city notables and miners lapsed into the arms of Morpheus, the crowd was not immune to his efforts to raise their aesthetic consciousness: “When I told them in my boyish eloquence of the secret of Boticelli the strong men wept like children.”

But it was Wilde’s descent into the Matchless mine–first to talk about the ethics of art, then to share a spirited dinner with the miners–that has become the stuff of legend.  In another letter he recounted “the miner’s surprise that art and appetite could go hand in hand . . . when I lit a long cigar,” he reports,” they cheered till the silver fell in dust from the roof . . . and when I quaffed a cocktail without flinching, they unanimously pronounced me in their grand simple way a bully boy with no glass eye–artless and spontaneous praise which touched me more than the pompous panegyrics of literary critics ever did or could.”

The Leadville miners, however, did not seem to mind being turned into works of fiction, but cheered as Wilde drove a silver spike into the lode that would bear his name.  Years after his visit, they recalled their guest with affection, one reportedly declaring,” [t]hat Oscar Wilde is some art guy, but he can drink any of us under the table and afterwards carry us home two at a time.”  While this claim may be a case of fond exaggeration, it reveals yet another affinity between Wilde, with his genius for hyperbolic paradox, and the West, that fertile breeding ground of tall tales and outlaw heroes.  Not to be outdone by a Leadville story about two accused criminals who were tried and hung in a saloon in the space of an hour, Wilde (as Lewis and Smith tell us) “invented a tale of how [the town] used real criminals for villains in its stage plays and how[,] when they wanted to produce Macbeth[,] they advertised until they found a lady just released from serving a term for poisoning.”

In truth, the Wild West was vanishing even as Oscar traversed it.  The realm of the open range and anything goes–the milieu of grizzly bears and buffaloes, cowboys and outlaws–was fast becoming a tall tale spun by novelists and by the showmen who embodied it: showmen like Buffalo Bill and–of course–Oscar Wilde, who put his genius into his life and made it art.  While he would later star in a tragedy, in his Wilde West show he played the part of intellectual, languishing Aesthete as bold, bad outlaw, and his Western audience ate it up.  As the plethora of print and stage fictions spawned by the Wilde West phenomenon attest, we are still applauding the act.

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