Dickens on the Strand, Wilde in the Streets

November 1, 2006 by  
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Oscar Wilde once journeyed deep in the heart of Texas — But apparently total absence makes the heart grow fonder

© Clifford Crouch, 2006

ON A SUNDAY MORNING IN JUNE 1882, drowsy readers opened their copies of the Galveston Daily News to find the following announcement:

PAVILION
TO-MORROW EVENING.
ONE NIGHT ONLY.
LECTURE, DECORATIVE ART.
PRICES 50 AND 75 CENTS.

The notice did not even print the name of its star subject but, instead, merely displayed the line-drawn portrait of an elegant, long-haired young man, under which was the scrawled signature: “Yours truly, Oscar Wilde.”

Only 27 years old at the time, the Anglo-Irish literary icon was in the earliest stages of a brilliant, if meteoric, career. (He would be dead at 46.) Wilde, not long out of Oxford, had published but a single, slender volume of poetry the previous year. Yet he was already an international celebrity.

From the very start, Wilde possessed (in the words of one biographer) “a genius for being recognized and talked about.” Indeed, the musical team of Gilbert &Sullivan was sponsoring his visit to the United States as a way to publicize the American production of their latest comic opera, “Patience.” Wilde was popularly viewed as the prototype for the opera’s hero, Bunthorne, an effeminate dandy.

Wilde had arrived in New York on Jan. 2, 1882. As his celebrity grew, his engagements multiplied, and he ultimately wound up spending that entire year speaking throughout the U.S. He toured, however, not so much as a poet, but as a self-appointed apostle of Britain’s so-called Aesthetic Movement, which preached the gospel of “Art for Art’s Sake.”

In April, heading back east after several California speeches, Wilde notified his manager: “I have received a good offer for two months’ light lecturing in the South, which I am anxious to visit.” Arrangements were promptly made. Reporters trailed Wilde about like modern paparazzi. They invariably noted with surprise his height (over six feet), his build (large and “manly”), and his straight, shoulder-length hair.

ON MONDAY, JUNE 19, OSCAR WILDE arrived in Galveston, at that time the state’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, with a population of more than 20,000. San Antonio followed close on its heels, while Houston lagged considerably behind. Wilde had composed a new lecture, “Decorative Art,” for this leg of his tour and would use it in all three cities.

Wilde spoke that evening at the Pavilion — also sometimes called the Electric Pavilion, as it was the first building in the city to be wired for electricity. Unfortunately, there was a problem, or rather more than one, as the Galveston Daily News ruefully confessed the next morning:

A large audience, composed for the most part of ladies, assembled at the Pavilion last night to listen to Mr. Oscar Wilde. Owing to a break in the circuit, the electric light did not illumine the vast building for a length of time. Another disturbing element existed in the presence of a motley crowd of persons intent upon drowning the voice of the lecturer …

Like all the newspapers, the Daily News was more fascinated by Wilde’s clothes than his ideas:

The veritable Oscar … appeared before the audience clad in an elegant attire, the most striking features of which were the knee breeches of the days of our grandfathers, and a profusion of frills.

While his delivery was poor, yet those who could hear what he said give him credit for a thorough familiarity with the topic. He professes to be a strong advocate of high art, and urges its cultivation by all classes …

Wilde next spoke in San Antonio, where he stayed at the Menger, a magnificent hotel still extant and in operation today. Wilde spoke Wednesday evening. The San Antonio Daily Express duly reported on Thursday:

The lecture itself was interesting and was listened to with great attention … [He] recommended the building of beautiful cities and homes in which to dwell, and gave it as his opinion that there were other and greater pleasures in this life than the American plan of pursuing unceasingly the art or struggle of money getting …

Outside of his personal appearance … we can recall nothing to ridicule, even though we were so disposed.

After seeing the sights of San Antonio, including the Alamo (then much neglected), Wilde returned by rail to Houston, where he spoke on Friday, June 23 at Gray’s Opera House, where he was heckled much as he had been in Galveston. The editors of the Houston Daily Post mulled over this strange young British phenomenon and waited until their Sunday edition (June 25) to give their considered critique.

The man is strong in his peculiar way, highly educated, and quite rational as to his principles … [But] Mr. Wilde’s manner is plainly and deplorably bad … Mr. Wilde has not one scintilla of the orator in his composition … no humor — no passion and no beauty, except that of decent and sometimes exquisite language and unquestionable reach of imagination … Therefore, while Mr. Wilde is not in any way an orator, he does possess … ease and elevation of thought, and exceeding beauty in the manipulation of language …

Wilde would depart Texas to the east, continuing his tour of the South through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia over the next several weeks. The poet would be more generous and gracious to Texas than it had been to him. The New Orleans Daily Picayune reported his recollections on Sunday, June 25:

There are in Texas two spots which gave me infinite pleasure. These are Galveston and San Antonio. Galveston, set like a jewel in a crystal sea, was beautiful. Its fine beach, its shady avenues of oleander, and its delightful sea breezes were something to be enjoyed. It was in San Antonio, however, that I found more to please me in the beautiful ruins of the old Spanish mission churches and convents, and in the relics of Spanish manners and customs impressed upon the people and the architecture of that city …

OSCAR WILDE WOULD LEAVE AMERICA for Europe at the close of December 1882. Over the next decade, he secured his literary reputation with the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray;” a handful of marvelous fairy tales for children, such as “The Selfish Giant” and “The Happy Prince;” and, finally, a series of sparkling stage comedies, including “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

At last, in 1895, grown arrogant with literary and social success, Wilde inexplicably insisted on becoming embroiled in a horrific sexual scandal. Legal proceedings that Wilde himself initiated soon boomeranged back upon him; and after three nasty trials — in court and in public opinion — he was found guilty of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor in an English prison. Emerging with his health and social reputation ruined, Wilde went into self-imposed exile on mainland Europe, finally settling in Paris. He managed to complete a last masterpiece, a poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol;” and then he died on Nov. 30, 1900, shortly after being baptized into the Catholic faith.

Despite the fall of their creator, Wilde’s literary works have never lost their reputation, nor their ability to charm and thrill. Oscar Wilde remains one of the most quoted writers in the English language; his witticisms and aphorisms are often echoed: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” “I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.” “Experience is the name everyone gives to his mistakes.” “I can resist everything except temptation.” “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”

All of this serves to explain why Galveston will shortly observe its 33rd annual celebration of literary genius — by which I mean, of course, “Dickens on the Strand,” a festival that pays perennial tribute to “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

ON THE SPECTRUM OF HISTORICAL REALITY, Dickens on the Strand rests hazily somewhere between the faithful recreation of Virginia’s “Colonial Williamsburg” and the make-believe world of Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.

While Charles Dickens did indeed visit the United States, he never came close to Galveston. During his first (and sole extensive) tour of North America, in 1842, the novelist only once came within several hundred miles of it, when he stopped in Cairo, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi. Dickens later described the riverside town in his 1843 travel book, “American Notes:”

A breeding place of fever, ague, and death … A dismal swamp, on which the half-built houses rot away … the hateful Mississippi circling and eddying before it, and turning off upon its southern course a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise; a place without one single redeeming quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo …

Dickens also described the people he encountered there in this fashion, in a private letter to his British friend John Forster: “The people here are exceedingly obliging. Their demeanour in these country parts is invariably morose, sullen, clownish, and repulsive …” Perhaps it is just as well, all things considered, that Charles Dickens never visited Galveston. He might have made the 1900 hurricane seem charitable in comparison.

AND SO GALVESTON does not possess a factual claim upon Dickens. As it happens, Galveston’s heyday as a Southern metropolis did span the 19th century, but little of the magnificent historical architecture that adorns the present-day city actually dates from Dickens’ lifetime. Most of early Galveston was constructed of wood, rather than brick or stone; and over the course of the 1800s, repeated hurricanes and fires destroyed large sections of the seaport, finally climaxed by the catastrophic 1900 hurricane. While the majority of what still stands may be loosely termed “Victorian-era” architecture, the reign of Queen Victoria was a uniquely long one, running from 1837 to 1901.

Indeed, the Dickens on the Strand festival was created “with affection beaming in one eye, and calculation shining out of the other” (to quote the master himself, in “Martin Chuzzlewit”). It was, from the start, intended as a way to save Galveston’s deteriorating architecture. The first festival, in 1974, was simply called “an Old English Christmas and Hanukkah party.” But the term “Old English” fails to tug at the heartstrings as the name of Dickens does, with its inevitable reminder of that most popular of holiday stories, “A Christmas Carol” — for Dickens on the Strand is finally not about Dickens at all, but about Christmas.

A cynic — that is, someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing — might suggest that Dickens on the Strand is finally about tourism dollars as well, since Galveston gets a major economic boost from the festival each fall. But I would scarcely venture to imply such a cold-hearted sentiment at this time of year, for fear of being labeled a Scrooge.

I WOULD, HOWEVER, draw the kind reader’s attention back to the tragic figure of Oscar Wilde, and to a private letter the young Wilde sent to an American friend, Julia Ward Howe, on July 6, 1882. He exulted:

I write to you from the beautiful, passionate, ruined South, the land of magnolias and music, of roses and romance … living chiefly on credit, and on the memory of some crushing defeats. And I have been to Texas, right to the heart of it, and stayed with Jeff Davis at his plantation (how fascinating all failures are!), and seen Savannah, and the Georgia forests, and bathed in the Gulf of Mexico, and engaged in Voodoo rites with the Negroes, and am dreadfully tired and longing for an idle day …

Surely if we on the Texas Gulf Coast are big-hearted enough to honor annually “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” we can also manage, somehow, to celebrate a Wilde weekend now and then.

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