“Oscar Wilde on Our Cast-Iron Stoves”

September 9, 1882

Thomas Nast

“Oscar Wilde on Our Cast-Iron Stoves”

Arts and Entertainment; U.S. Tours by Foreign Dignitaries;

Wilde, Oscar;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Another American Institution Sat Down On

This cartoon appeared when Oscar Wilde was in the middle of his lecture circuit of the United States and Canada in 1882.  Having recently published his Poems (1881), yet being short of cash, the Anglo-Irish poet, critic, and (later) playwright readily accepted Richard d'Oyly Carte's offer to finance the North American speaking tour.  Carte was the London producer of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, Patience (1881), which spoofed Wilde and his aesthetic movement that espoused the ideal of beauty and art for art's sake. Carte realized that the best way to generate interest in the American premiere of Patience would be to have Wilde promote aestheticism, since the musical parodied both the man and his cause.

The 28-year-old Wilde arrived in New York City on January 2, 1882, famously informing customs officials, "I have nothing to declare except my genius."  His 12-month tour took him to 70 destinations in the United States and Canada, introducing him to audiences of Kansas farmers, Utah Mormons, Colorado miners (whom he identified as the "only well-dressed men ... in America"), and other typical North Americans.  As sketched in this cartoon, his chosen attire (which he did not wear in England) visually communicated his aesthetic principles and public persona as a dandy:  black velvet coat and knee breeches, frilly lace collar and shirt, silk stockings, and patent leather pumps, along with a flower (sunflower or lily) that he carried or wore. 

During his first week in New York City, Wilde was pursued by reporters at every step, wined and dined by city notables, and attended Patience at the Standard Theater, where he congratulated the cast at intermission.  On January 7, he delivered his inaugural address to a capacity crowd at Chickering Hall, calling for beauty, not morality, to be the guiding light of art and literature:  "It is not increased moral sense your literature needs.  Indeed we should never talk of a moral or an immoral poem.  Poems are either well written or badly written.  That is all.  A good work aims at the purely artistic effect.  Love art for its own sake and all things that you need will be added to it."  He explained that aesthetes loved the sunflower and lily because they were "the two most perfect models of design.  They are the most naturally adopted for decorative art.  The gaudy leonine beauty of the one, the precious loveliness of the other ..."  

Although the audience reaction was mixed, and the press would consistently ridicule him, Wilde's first performance grossed $1000 at the box office, and generated widespread interest and anticipation across the country.  Harper's Weekly editor George William Curtis, though, was among those unimpressed.  In his January 21 editorial, "The Sunflower and the Lily," Curtis observed that, "Mr. Wilde's plea for beauty was a pleasant and picturesque essay, dashed with a certain daring triviality. But such doctrine as there is in it is not very new."  He pointed out that reverence for beauty could be traced back as far as the ancient Greeks, and was currently enjoying a renaissance several decades old.  

After traveling to Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Memphis, Charleston, and other American cities, Wilde returned to New York.  On November 9, at a dinner given in his honor at the posh Delmonico's restaurant, Wilde remarked that "life is too joyless" in the United States; "work has become your passion ... American health is being undermined by stress of business and high-pressure life."  

In November, Wilde admitted to the New York Tribune that his mission had been a failure.  He did not elaborate how, but during the second half of the year his expenses had increased while his income declined, leaving him with only a slight net profit from the venture.  Furthermore, American audiences probably came primarily to see a curiosity, not to hear Wilde's artistic theories and judgments, and his monotonous delivery could not sustain their attention.  When he was not met by ridicule, he faced indifference.  Wilde departed for England on December 27, 1882, as American newspapers printed comments like "Good-by, Oscar; we shan't miss you" and "We know a charlatan when we see one."  For his part, Wilde responded, "They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris. I would add that when bad Americans die, they stay in America."

Robert C. Kennedy

“Oscar Wilde on Our Cast-Iron Stoves”
December 3, 2023

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