Oscar Wilde

(Dundee Advertiser, Saturday, 20th October 1883.)

Last night Mr Oscar Wilde delivered a lecture “On Personal Impressions of America” to a large fashionable audience audience in the Dundee Theatre Royal. It may be of interest to state that Mr Wilde appeared in evening dress. His vest, which was double-breasted, was of black satin, and cut to exhibit a liberal display of linen. In the shirt front there was but one large gold stud. From underneath the vest there peeped out a pink silk handkerchief. His tie was of black satin, and his collar a folding one of peculiar design. The cuffs of his shirt overlapped the sleeves of his coat. His boots were patent leather without decoration. The jewellery he wore consisted of two large-sized signet rings, one on the third finger of each hand, and two great seals of uncommon design suspended from a fob pocket by a black silk ribbon.

On appearing on the stage Mr Wilde was warmly applauded. He began by stating that he did not believe he should be able to impart much useful information about America, for he did not know its latitude or longitude, and had not the slightest idea of its exports. He would merely try to convey to them a few of his impressions of the largest English speaking country in the world. What struck him most when he first arrived in New York was so many well-dressed people. There were no rags; and when one came from Europe, where the purple of civilisation was surrounded by the direst poverty. He was rather surprised at this discovery. Then, another thing that struck him was that everybody was in a hurry – rushing to catch some imaginary train. (Laughter) America was a notion out of breath, racing often for what was not worth having. It was not a romantic nation. No country was so noisy. Instead of the note of the lark wakening them up in the morning, they had the shriek of the steam-whistle, and it also did service for the song of the nightingale when they went to bed in the evening. (Laughter.)

During the six days he was occupied in journeying to California the engine of the train kept shrieking consecutive whiffs the whole time. Perhaps it would be too much to expect that the engine whistles should perform anything so elaborate as a symphony of Beethoven, but they might be tuned to some charming note or chord, and not ruin the ears of the country. (Applause.) In America they would not find the beautiful cities to be met in England and Scotland, but they would find modern science adapted to modern life. He had been struck by the effective use made of the electric light, while the steam-engines were full of new forms of loveliness. Speaking of Niagara, he remarked that newly-married people generally went there to spend their honeymoon. He could not but think that the waterfall was the first great disappointment of American married life. (Laughter.)  

The prairies were ridiculously big, and he supposed that when Nature came to them she gave up in despair the job of decorating them. (Applause.) They were a splendid monotony, which one wearied of, though they were something fine in their way. It was only in California that he saw a really artistic city, and that was due to the Chinese traditions of beauty. The Chinamen who came to California to work, becoming discontented with American architecture, had built for themselves a little city in San Francisco. There he had seen the China portion of the population taking their tea out of cups resembling the petals of a white rose, while at the hotel where he was living he had a Delft cup an inch and a half thick. (Laughter.)

The Chinese Theatre had not the slightest pretence to modern realism. They went on the principle that the stage should always be a beautiful pageant. Each actor was gorgeously arrayed, no matter what character he personated; and the beggar of the piece might be heard to declaim that the cold wind was sweeping through his wretched rags, while all the time he was attired in robes of rich satin. (Laughter and applause.)

 

When the audience were particularly delighted they took tea, and when an actor was particularly thrilled he also took tea. (Laughter.) The Americans were perhaps the most wonderful people in the world for advertising. On a peak of the Rocky Mountains, which he supposed would only have been accessible to the eagle, he noticed that the enterprising proprietor of a certain pickle had stuck an announcement that his bottle could be got at a certain price, and that there would be a reduction if more than six were taken. (Laughter.) Describing the Tabernacle at Salt Lake City, M Wilde said it was in shape like a tea kettle, and the decorations were those of an ordinary jail. (Laughter.) It was the most depressing building he ever saw; still no earthly architect was responsible, as the design had been furnished by the mythical prophet Mormon. (Laughter.)

 

Me Wilde then detailed his experiences of Leadville, the great mining centre. It was a rather lawless place. One had to fire his pistol before turning a corner to let people know he was coming. In a café chantant there was a placard with the words – “Please don’t shoot at the pianist; he does the best he can.” (Great laughter.) He had come to the conclusion that the criticism in Leadville was the most stringent he had ever heard of. (Laughter.) He supped in a mine there. The first course was whisky, the second was whisky, and the third was whisky. (Laughter.) He did not know how this was, but being a guest he of course passed no remark. (Laughter.) As regarded the people in America, the children seemed to them coming from England or Scotland rather pale and precocious, not so joyous, and decidedly not so healthy. That came from the curious want of recognition of the importance of games and gymnastics that there was in America. There was hardly any outdoor sports at all, and no international game with the exception of euchre. (Laughter.) Euchre was perhaps hardly a proper basis for the physique of the country, although it might produce sharpness of intellect and dexterity of hand. So the children, although immensely clever, seemed rather old-fashioned. Living in these hot, crowded cities, and crowded cities, and crowded, hot hotels, they never had the freedom and the joyousness that our children had. However, they grew up into very charming people.

 

The American girl was one of the brightest little despots possible. He called her a despot because there was a very excellent rule in American society that every young lady was entitled to twelve devoted slaves of the opposite sex. (Laughter.) The free and open friendship allowed between girls and young men of the same age seemed to him to give great joyousness to their society, and make it extremely pleasant. Women in America had a wonderful opportunity of a choice of profession. Almost every profession was open to them; almost every University gave them degrees. There was no country in the world where a well-educated girl had such a chance of really earning a livelihood, not in the meagre ways that they had open to them in Europe, but in fine intellectual professions. As regarded their dress, American women dressed extremely well, provided they were of opinion that a milliner should dress the people. (Laughter.)

 

He disagreed with that, and thought the people should be dressed by artists. The whole basis of dress was of course the proportions of the human figure. A milliner rarely seemed to have any idea what the human figure really was like, or of where, for instance, a person’s waist was – (laughter) – and so he would like to make it a law that every milliner should obliged to have once drawn and studied that beautiful Greek statue – the Venus of [sic] Milo. If they drew it or studied it they would see that a  waist was a very delicate curve, and not a very harsh right angle suddenly occurring in the middle of the figure. (Applause.) Then he thought it would cure that strange fancy that they often seemed to have, that size had something to do with beauty, and that a thing was beautiful because it was small. He needed not to remind them that beauty had nothing to do with size. Beauty was a question of proportion. If the feet of the Venus had been smaller the effect would have been not to have added beauty to the statue, but to make it a deformity. If people would remember that the tight corset would remember that the tight corset would certainly go, and they would see that the human hand was by no means too small for it. (Laughter.)

 

Another thing that milliners never seemed to understand at all was the beauty of a texture of drapery. If one had a very beautiful texture the more simple one kept it the better. They would get their variety not by sticking bows on it where they were not wanted, but in the beautiful folds into which it would naturally fall, and they would get the variety of colour by the shades instead of by flounces. Milliners passed their own condemnation upon themselves by the use of the word fashion. What was fashion? It was a form of ugliness so intolerable that they had to alter it every six months. (Laughter and applause.) If it was beautiful or rational it would not be altered – they would keep to it. But the universal desire for change, and the re-appearance every six months of an entirely new scheme for dressing, showed how dissatisfied they all were with ordinary dress, and how there was no permanent beauty in it. To those who admired milliners dress the ladies dressed extremely well. Their dresses were extremely costly as regarded textures, colours, and the like. The men were not by any means so interesting a topic. He began life much earlier than in Britain. At 14 or 15 the boy left school or the college, and went into business at once. By the time he reached 20 he would have made two or three successful bankruptcies, and would be a millionaire when he came of age. (Laughter.)

 

As regarded their literature, they read newspapers perhaps more than any nation that ever existed. The daily newspaper system permeated life. The American babe as soon as it learned to read and write at once published a newspaper, in which its own misdeeds and the news of the nursery were duly chronicled for the general depression of the rest of the family. (Laughter.) Every schoolboy had his newspaper, and every young man liked to dabble with it. The character of the newspaper was wonderfully comic. They seemed not to dismiss any question of life, no matter what it was, with any seriousness at all. It was impossible to read their papers without laughter, and at first that made one think that perhaps they were trifling people that liked to mock everything. When he went to the country he saw that that was not so, but with the………devotion to business the want of all the………..pleasures that art gave one, they re………these comic papers to try to bring some little joy into their lives. As regarded the general character of news, perhaps the best way one could describe it would be the answer that an American father gave to his little girl who was asking him what became of wicked people. Finally she said, “And what becomes of people who tell nothing but lies?” The father replied – “Oh! well, they go to New York and become editors of newspapers.” (Laughter.)

 

American education was very good as far as literary education ever could be good. They were a people who were the best scientifically educated that he had ever travelled amongst. Out in the Far West he found platelayers on railways, miners, and so on, who would come up and ask him to tell them about Mr Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Huxley, and our modern scientific writers. They seemed to read because they were quickly able to adapt it to their own life. Art, of course, they were not so much interested in. Still, after all, their education was a book education, and there was a great want of good handicrafts in America. He thought that both in England and in America they had made a great error in their education. They had founded it entirely upon books at a time when really books were very boring to a child. From books he did not think they really learned very much at all, and it, instead of teaching the child latitude and longitude of countries nobody wanted to go to – which was what they called geography (laughter) – or that criminal calendar of Europe which was misnamed history – (renewed laughter) – if, instead of worrying, they were to teach them some simple decorative art, surely that would be giving them a much happier childhood, and would be fitting them in a much more practical way for the general service of life. (Applause.) Still in America there were great lessons that they might learn themselves – the first he thought being that poverty was not an absolute essential to civilisation; that really one could base one’s civilisation on something better than pauperism and rags.

 

Although the spiritual side of American life and the artistic side had not been developed to any very great extent, still they had given a great material base to it; they had founded it so firmly that it was quite common there to meet an artisan who owned his house and a farmer who owned his holding. There was no country in the world where there was so much personal property of that kind, every man having his own house, and giving the wellbeing and the sense of home one liked to create in the country. What a mother of nations America had been! She could not perhaps do much with the old generation when they landed, but with the children she would do a great deal. She would take them and educate them, give them every opportunity for a good education; she would direct them to a country where there was every opportunity for work, and she would give them a great political education also. Each boy and child, knowing that when they came to man’s estate they would be considered worthy of having a voice in the making of those laws that they were obliged to obey – which in America was one of the great bases of their Constitution – gave them that keen political knowledge which distinguished them above all people. They did not feel that government was a thing above them, but that government was merely the expression of the will of the people. That one learned in America, and saw that prosperity did not materialise the people so much as many would ask them to believe. There was wealth distributed and happy homes, and life set on higher bases; the secrets of art and culture would follow at a later time; but there was no country where one saw better the bearing of the word freedom and the value of the thing liberty. (Loud applause.)

 

    The lecture, which occupied one hour and twenty minutes in delivery, was listened to with so much attention, the style of Mr Wilde being particularly fascinating. At the close the audience warmly applauded, and the aesthete returned and bowed his acknowledgements.