Oscar Wilde in the Land of Deseret

by SARA A. DAVIS

The citizens of Salt Lake City anxiously awaited the visit of the Sunflower Apostle, Oscar Wilde, the greatest “aesthete” in the world. As wild as his name, the “singularly deep young man” from London who was known for his poetry and eccentric style, would begin his American lecture tour at the beginning of 1882. (Warner, 2) The Aesthetic Movement was a mainly European art movement that emphasized aesthetics more than political and social themes for most forms of art in the day. Generally elaborate and ahead of his time, Oscar Wilde was known throughout the world as one of the greatest to ever speak on the subject. All over the country people were being shown Gilbert and Sullivan’s latest live opera, Patience, to ready themselves to meet the unusual Wilde, as well as acquaint themselves with the entire Aesthetic Movement. (Mason) The Salt Lake Theatre was no exception, showing the famous opera over one hundred times and selling out on many of those nights. (Mason, Warner)

His visit was well publicized, especially covered in the three big papers in Northern Utah at the time, as well as some of the less extensive local journals scattered in the smaller neighboring cities. There is no question that people were curious about the man who dressed in knee breeches and preached of the virtues of lilies and sunflowers. He had only recently come to fame, not as much for his curious unprincipled poetry, but more so for his depiction as the character Bunthorne in the aforementioned opera. (Warner, 2) Many did not believe that he would be as nonsensical in manner as Gilbert had portrayed him. For most Utahns, who were able to attend his lecture, however, he turned out to be every bit as ridiculous as his depiction.

His tour in the United States started out in the bustling New York City. The people of New York loved Oscar Wilde and he loved them. “His voice is pleasing and well-modulated and he speaks very distinctly,” one enthusiastic New Yorker reported. (Quoted in Warner, 6) It is thought that Wilde was able to leave a positive perception of himself in the East because he had not yet vanquished his vigor for the tour, or perhaps the more liberal views found on the East Coast during that time were more conducive to his unique message. But whatever the reason, Wilde was not nearly as well received at his lectures in the West as he was in the East, especially in Mormon Salt Lake City.

Oscar Wilde as a student. This image is in the public domain.

It was on April 10, 1882, that Wilde arrived in a bustling Salt Lake. He was set to lecture that night and move to his next location the following morning. The local newspapers had advertised well in advance for this celebrated day. On April 6 both the Salt Lake Daily Herald and Deseret Evening News, as it was called at the time, reported that the topic of “The Oscah’s!” lecture was to be “the Practical Application of Aesthetic Theory to Everyday Home Life and Art Ornamentation,” a fascinating subject to the Salt Lake Mormons who had triumphantly created a city out of the barren desert valley in the shadows of the Wasatch Mountains.

When Oscar Wilde arrived on the morning train he was “observed of all observers.” (Deseret News, April 10, 1882) He was not dressed in his eccentric bottle green knickers, much to the disappointment of those gathered. Around noon he went to his hotel, the Walker house. He granted the small crowd of the agog only a glimpse, disappearing through the ladies entrance. He took his midday meal in his room with only his servant for company. Next on the agenda was a visit to the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, John Taylor, at his home in downtown Salt Lake City. The two of them took a tour of the city, “Oscar seeing as much as possible and being seen as little as possible.” (Warner, 14) The Sunflower Apostle did not take to the Mormon prophet or to the buildings found in the city at large. He commented in a letter to his friend, Mrs. Bernard Beere, that the Tabernacle was the shape of a soup kettle and had decorations suitable for a jail. (Wilde)

As the evening arrived the crowd gathered excitedly in the grand Salt Lake Theatre. It is reported that as the famous Oscar Wilde finally stepped out onto the stage, “he seemed disconcerted by the young men seated on the front row” who were all wearing enormous sunflowers on their lapels. He was now dressed in his infamous getup, much to the delight of the audience. He plunged into his pre-written speech but did not deliver as the audience expected. His speech was halting and nervous, done with a large amount of astonishment as well as some politeness. The lecture lasted just under an hour and was recognized at the end with a short awkward applause. (Warner, 16)

Each of the three large newspapers in Salt Lake City at the time were quick to weigh in on the strange looking man who muttered his speech all in one breath. The Deseret Evening News reported on April 10, 1882, that Wilde’s ideas were unoriginal and absurd. The Salt Lake Daily Herald stated in an article that appeared the morning of April 11, 1882, that “there was no attempt at enthusiasm, and the only impression one could obtain of the lecturer himself from the lecture was that he was an enthusiast without enthusiasm.”

Editorials concerning Wilde continued to pop up in the papers as reports of the impression Oscar Wilde had of the Mormons began to reach the media. The Deseret Evening News reported on July 7, 1882, in an article titled “How They looked to Oscar” that Oscar Wilde was “one of the greatest humbugs ever thrust upon the American public. Talk about the gullibility of the British public!” This review came after a report from a New York City journalist that “The gentle Wilde had put it thus: ‘The most unintellectual audience I had was in Salt Lake. The Mormons are the most unintellectual people I have met in America.’ ” (Deseret Evening News, April 10, 1882) Though Wilde may have been a poor lecturer, he was no fool. A reporter for the Salt Lake Daily Herald was granted an interview with Oscar Wilde and reported in an editorial on April 12, 1882, that Wilde had modestly admitted that he had never studied elocution and had not become famous based on his ability to speak in public.

The only positive review to be found in all the Salt Lake news outlets was an article published in the Salt Lake Tribune on April 13, titled “Oscar Wilde: The Young English Gentlemen and John Taylor’s Mormon Critics.” The paper’s editor said glowingly “It is for the people and through the people that he would re-awaken the love of art…. Who else could fill up such an enjoyable hour?” In her paper written in 1987 on the subject of Oscar Wilde’s visit, Helen Louise Warner suggested that the traditionally non-Mormon publication may have written such a review as a means to oppose the Mormon residents in Salt Lake City, which she suggested they did whenever possible.

“Fortunately … he has come and gone unmolested,” the Herald reported on April 11, 1882. Warner concluded that “in spite of all the advertising and publicity for Oscar Wilde’s visit to Salt Lake City, he did not make a great or lasting impression.” Though the people of Salt Lake did not particularly like the “singularly deep young man” from across the ocean, they did have the opportunity to see one of the most prominent celebrities of the late 19th century, and certainly the most celebrated aesthete to ever “lie upon the daisies.” (Mason, 2; Warner)

Sara Davis is a junior at The University of Utah. She is majoring in illustration with a minor in arts and technology.

Sources

“Oscar Wilde,” Deseret Evening News, April 6, 1882.

“Oscar Wilde,” Salt Lake Daily Herald, April 6, 1882.

Deseret Evening News, April 10, 1882.

“Oscar Wilde: He Came, He Lectured, and He Is About to Depart,” Salt Lake Daily Herald, April 11, 1882.

“Oscar Wilde: A Pleasant Chat with the Aesthete; His Impression of America and Her People and Poets; The Courtesy of His Audiences,” Salt Lake Daily Herald, April 11, 1882.

“Oscar Wilde: The Young English Gentlemen and John Taylor’s Mormon Critics,” Salt Lake Tribune, April 13, 1882.

Oscar Wilde, Impressions of America, ed. with an introduction by Stuart Mason (Sunderland: Keystone Press, 1906).

“How They Looked to Oscar,” Deseret Evening News, July 7, 1882.

Stuart Mason, Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Haskell House, 1972).

Helen Louise Warner, “Oscar Wilde’s Visit to Salt Lake City,” (Honors thesis, The University of Utah, 1987).

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