In an early display of homophobia, 60 Harvard students dressed up like the Irish playwright Oscar Wilde when he delivered a lecture at the Boston Music Hall in 1882.
Wilde, later sentenced to prison for gross indecency with men, urged people to lead beautiful lives by surrounding themselves with beautiful things. He preached, ‘art for art’s sake.’
Wilde came to Boston with that message, part of a year-long lecture. He provoked strong reactions in New England.
Some considered him decadent and subversive. The prominent Cambridge social reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson accused him of writing pornographic poetry. The Boston Evening Transcript questioned, in verse, whether Oscar Wilde was a man or a woman.
But a group of Boston Bohemians – many of them gay — fell under his spell. And according to at least one critic, Wilde’s visit inspired cultural developments that made Boston the center of the aesthetic movement in America.
Oscar Wilde toured the United States to promote a Gilbert and Sullivan play that made fun of him. The play, Patience, mocked the aesthetic movement then the rage in Britain.
The central character, Reginald Bunthorne, appears as a caricature of Wilde, a ‘fleshly poet’ committed to sensuous beauty.
The playwrights’ promoter, Richard D’Oyly Carte, thought a lecture tour by the celebrity aesthete would help sell tickets to the U.S. tour of the play.
Oscar Wilde, then a 27-year-old Irish celebrity poet and playwright, agreed to do the lecture tour. His motive, noted historian Douglass Shand-Tucci, was not to promote a play. Instead, he wanted to give force and coherence to the aesthetic movement emerging in the United States.
Wilde had a knack for attracting attention with his flamboyant dress, signature sunflower and tart witticisms. “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad,” he said. “People are either charming or tedious.”
And he famously defined a cynic as one ‘who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’
When Wilde arrived in New York in January 1882, he supposedly told a customs inspector he had nothing to declare but his genius. However, there’s no evidence he actually said that. He did say the Atlantic Ocean disappointed him – not stormy enough. A London periodical published a letter from the Atlantic Ocean expressing disappointment in Oscar Wilde.
Another publicity genius, P.T. Barnum, supposedly offered Oscar Wilde 200 pounds to ride Jumbo the Elephant carrying a sunflower, his trademark.
Thanks to his flair for attracting public notice his image appeared everywhere during his U.S. lecture tour. Drawings and photographs of him were ubiquitous in posters, newspapers, magazines, sheet music, even trading cards.
He made a splash in Newport, R.I., where Julia Ward Howe entertained him at her home. He also lectured on “The Decorative Arts” at the Casino Theater.
His influence was still felt more than a hundred years later, when one of the Newport mansions, Rosecliff, mounted an exhibition in 2018 called, “Bohemian Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement and Oscar Wilde’s Newport.”
Unmanly Oscar Wilde
There were plenty of dissenting voices, though. His hair and clothing especially drew criticism. He had a flamboyant stage outfit of velvet jacket, stockings and knee breeches.
He also wore his hair long with bangs – something only women did. When he spoke in New York, the Tribune reported he attracted ‘many pallid and aesthetic young men in dress suits and banged hair.’
He visited Boston twice, in January and in June. The city then considered itself the Athens of America, proud of its writers, artists and philosophers.
By 1880, the city had shed some of its Puritanical starchiness, at least in certain quarters. A Bohemian demimonde of artists, poets and architects had emerged. And the city was wild for the frothy musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The poet James Russell Lowell had given Oscar Wilde a letter of introduction to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Lowell had debuted the drag shows known as the Hasty Pudding Theatricals in 1837.
Wilde had lunch with Holmes, and met artists and writers at the St. Botolph Club. The Boston Herald defended him in an interview, noting his ‘dress was no more of a departure from the ordinary than that of a dozen musicians and painters in Boston.’
Then came time for his lecture at the Boston Music Hall. Sixty Harvard students marched to their front-row seats, two abreast, carrying sunflowers and wearing knee pants, stockings and long-haired wigs.
Was it a homophobic prank to embarrass Oscar Wilde? Or was it a publicity stunt dreamed up by Wilde himself? Whatever the case, Wilde knew what they had planned and came on stage wearing a conservative suit.
Wilde looked around him and said, “I see about me certain signs of an aesthetic movement.”
And then in a stage whisper, he said, “Save me from my disciples.”
Later on his lecture tour a newspaper reporter asked him about the Harvard students. He said the lecture ‘passed off brilliantly.’
“You don’t suppose for a moment that a movement of any importance can be affected by 60 young men?” he said.
Oscar Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour created a sensation in Boston, according to The History Project in the 1998 book Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland.
No other city took Oscar Wilde so seriously, argued Shand-Tucci in Boston Bohemia. He influenced one Bohemian group calling itself the Visionists
The Visionists included architect Ralph Adams Cram, a leader of the Gothic Revival in architecture; photographer Fred Holland Day, a pioneer in art photography; and interior designer Ogden Codman, who wrote a book on decorating with Edith Wharton.
Visionist Daniel Berkeley Updike, a prominent printer and type designer, called his firm Merrymount Press, after New England’s earliest Bohemian, Thomas Morton. He famously printed the Book of Common Prayer, financed by J.P. Morgan.
Bernard Berenson traveled in the same circles as the Visionists, and he advised Isabella Steward Gardner on what artworks to buy. Gardner, of course, built a Venetian palace in Boston’s Back Bay, filled it with art and then willed it as an art museum.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library are also viewed as triumphs of the aesthetic movement.
Shand-Tucci quotes Mary Blanchard, who wrote a study, Near the Coast of Bohemia,
…to many Americans, Boston was a city that symbolized older standards that stood in opposition to the commercialism and modernity of a cosmopolitan New York, … [but] it was also the seat of the new ‘gospel,’ aestheticism, a gospel that attacked those very standards.
Images: Oscar Wilde sheet music By BPL – Flickr: Oscar Wilde, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16006196.