Oscar Wilde arrived in Atlanta on July 4, 1882, after delivering his lecture on decorative art in Columbus and Macon. The Constitution reporter who interviewed him was curious about his recent visit with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Wilde laid it on thick:
He [Davis] impressed me very much as a man of the keenest intellect, and a man fairly to be a leader of men… We in Ireland are fighting for the principle of autonomy against empire, for independence against centralization, for the principles for which the south fought… I had read Mr. Davis’ book, which is a masterpiece, although to us in Europe the elaborate detail of military maneuver is at times a little burdensome… The south has produced the best poet of America—Edgar Allen Poe, and with all its splendid traditions it would be impossible not to believe that she will continue to perfect what she has begun so nobly. The very physique of the people in the south is finer than that in the north, and a temperament infinitely more susceptible to the influences of beauty.
Wilde was soon to have opportunity to view one of the “splendid traditions” at close hand, but he first delivered his lecture to an attentive audience at DeGive’s Opera House. There was none of the heckling that had marred many of his American appearances, and the Constitution concluded that “the lecture was an agreeable surprise and the audience was well entertained.”
The next morning Wilde and his valet, W.M. Traquair, a black man, boarded the night train for Savannah while Wilde’s agent, Frank Gray, went to buy three first-class and sleeping-car tickets for them. After Vail had the tickets in hand, the clerk learned of the group’s racial configuration and told Gray that regulations forbade him to provide a black man a sleeper berth.
Gray returned to the train with the information. Wilde and Traquair were adamant in sticking to their planned arrangements, saying they had never encountered this regulation before. The ticket agent told the sleeping car porter to deal with the matter, which he did by telling the party that the train would pass through Jonesboro, and that if the citizens of that place just somehow happened to find out that a black man was in the sleeper, little could be done to guarantee the Wilde party’s safety. The suggestion had its intended effect and Traquair saw middle Georgia from the first-class coach.
Wilde arrived in Savannah on the afternoon of the 5th and was shown Bonaventure cemetery and the new shell-paved road, which he was reported to have found delightful. He spoke that evening at the Savannah Theater under the auspices of the St. Andrew’s Society. The Morning News reported that the audience was “composed of the best class of our citizens, and they gave respectful attention to the lecture.” This reporter, like many Americans, and nearly all Southerners, Found Wilde’s plain style of address eccentric at best. In the south, public speaking was high entertainment, with the speaker judged on his magnificent gestures, his modulation of volume and tempo, and the ornateness of his rhetoric. The Morning News reporter resolved
…to consider the matter and not the manner. The grotesque dress, the long hair, ridiculous postures, the drawling voice and the miserable elocution must be forgotten. We were agreeably disappointed in the matter, but bored by the style in which it was presented. The lecture was, however, one that could be read with infinite pleasure and profit.
Wilde spoke the following night in Augusta Opera House where the Chronicle reporter found “a large and fashionable audience.” He concluded that the lecture “was filled with beautiful thoughts,” but that “the absurd attitudes and sing-song drawl of the lecturer interfered materially with its attractive qualities.”
On the following day Wilde left for Charleston (where he discovered the quintessence of Southern nostalgia upon exclaiming “How beautiful the moon is!” and getting the reply, “You should have seen it, sir, before the War.”) After his departure the Georgia press rendered its final judgments: The Macon Telegraph wrote up a phony interview which had Wilde breaking into a stage-Irishman’s brogue; the Augusta Chronicle, calling for a new city library, invoked him as a prophet of property value appreciation: “Oscar Wilde is in a measure a crank, but he says some good things, and one of these is that the beautiful in decoration goes far to increase the value of buildings…”
An Atlanta Constitution editorial of July 7 delivered the most sympathetic and insightful analysis of Wilde’s message to appear anywhere in the state, probably in the entire nation. It was unsigned, but was likely written by Henry Grady himself:
…It is worthwhile to remember that [Wilde’s] aestheticism is of the robust school—that the art for which he pleads is not the overfed, idle, fastidious sort which foolish young men and simpering young ladies have been in the habit of associating with a rather vague and strained application… of the term “aesthetic…” Mr. Wilde shows that he by no means deserves the ridicule which has been lavished upon his lectures… it is difficult to imagine anything more practical than the Atlanta lecture of the young aesthete… what young man of spirit and promise would deliberately choose to become a clerk in a store if his mind were not dwarfed and warped by the distressingly inadequate and imperfect education to be obtained in our schools? …Here is the question: How shall labor be made gracious? How shall that which is a necessity be made to contribute its own peculiar pleasure to the sons and daughters of men?
True indeed, but while the satraps of the New South simply sought a way to keep the lower orders content with menial work, Wilde strove to inculcate a higher dissatisfaction, subversive of their and every other orthodoxy. It was a hundred years ago today (April 5, 1895) that two detectives entered a room in London’s Cadogan Hotel, saying “We have a warrant here, Mr. Wilde, for your arrest on a charge of committing indecent acts.” Then disgrace, prison and death.
A toast, if you please, this week, to Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Willis Wilde, champion of the despised, prophet of freedom and possibility, martyr, poet; our brother and contemporary, he has outlived his mockers and tormentors.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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