One of 19th-century Mobile’s most colorful and memorable visitors was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. The flamboyant Irishman was touring the United States in 1882, and though he had yet to publish his great plays, he was already internationally famous for his championship of the Aesthetic Movement in the arts. His epigrams were legendary, and from the start of his American travels he didn’t disappoint. At the customs desk in New York, shortly after his arrival, he announced, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”
Wilde, left, was 27 years old and over 6 feet tall, with long hair and soulful eyes. His outfits — knee breeches, velvet jackets, slippers and a lily or sunflower in the hand — were the subject of much interest. As an aesthete, Wilde advocated a rejection of Victorian décor as vulgar and overproduced. He was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites in wanting to move back to before the Renaissance for a more natural expression of painting, sculpture and literature. He was an advocate of art for art’s sake.
On tour, two assistants accompanied Wilde: his black valet, W.M. Traquail, who took care of his elaborate and extensive wardrobe, and an advance man who booked reservations. The press followed Wilde’s visit in great detail. By the spring, he was in the South, appearing in Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans. The editor of the Mobile Register wrote, “Can’t he be prevailed to come here and lecture at Frascati Park?” Alert to press accounts and sensing opportunity, Wilde’s advance man traveled to Mobile and made the necessary arrangements.
When the news broke, locals were excited, and the impending visit became the subject of much fun and puckish wit. One anonymous poet lampooned Wilde’s refined, studied sensibility in the pages of the Register:
“I am an esthetic young man
Reclining upon a divan
With eyes full of soul
That always will roll
When a sunflower near me
they scan …
I’m an utterly too too
On the latest Anglican plan
I pose at my glass
And act like an ass
At least just as much as
I can …
And so I’m esthetic you see
That’s just what’s the matter
Wherever I rove
Folks admire me by Jove!
To an utterly too too degree.”
If sometimes an object of derision, Wilde gained a measure of respect when Mobilians learned of his sympathies for the late Confederate cause. In New Orleans, Wilde was quoted as saying: “The case of the South in the Civil War was to my mind much like that of Ireland today. It was a struggle for autonomy, self-government for a people.” Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina, promptly invited him to visit at Beauvoir. The Mobile Register mused: “It is scarcely conceivable that two persons can be more different. We confess to sufficient curiosity to know the bent of their coming interview. It may be that Mr. Wilde is built of far different timber from the general estimate, and that Mr. Davis may be amply repaid for his hospitality, in better coin than the empty fact of knowing a celebrity of two continents.” Wilde gave the ex-president of the Confederacy an autographed picture of himself, which, incredibly, survived Hurricane Katrina and is still on display at Beauvoir.
The day after his visit with Davis, Wilde arrived in Mobile and checked into the Battle House Hotel. More than 300 tickets to his lecture had already been sold at 75 cents each. Getting into the spirit of the occasion, the Register reported that interest “seems to be utterly intense.” At the corner of Church and St. Emanuel streets, things were utterly too too intense as Mrs. Fanny Williams Tompkins prepared her house for a reception in honor of Wilde. Mrs. Tompkins was a patron of the local theater and a leading member of the Mobile Reading Club. Her husband, John, was an attorney and state solicitor. Before his evening lecture, Wilde stood on their polished floors, surrounded by admirers. Prominently absent was Mobile’s own most famous writer, Augusta Evans Wilson. She haughtily trashed her personal invitation, grumbling that Wilde’s “life defames his art.”
Frascati Park was the perfect site for Wilde’s appearance. Developed in the late 1860s where Brookley Field is today, and named for an ancient Roman resort, the park overlooked Mobile Bay and featured a sandy beach, swing sets and an open-air pavilion where Wilde was to speak. A reporter called the June 28, 1882, gathering “larger and more brilliant than any ever yet seen at our summer theatre.” Extra streetcars were pressed into service, pulled by “aesthetic mules” wearing sunflowers in their straw hats. Wilde later remembered “an enterprising boy at Mobile who made twenty-five dollars selling sunflowers to the people who came to my lecture. That boy will be a congressman yet — who knows.” At 8:30 p.m. Wilde delivered a prepared lecture on the decorative arts. “We confess to have gone to Frascati with decided prejudice against Mr. Wilde, ” admitted one reviewer, “but candor compels us to admit that such prejudice was unfounded. We expected to hear an extravaganza pronounced by a buffoon, but instead we heard a very chaste and finished lecture from quite a cultivated gentleman. He preaches the doctrine that the good, the substantial and truly elegant should enter into the fabric of our social life.”
The next day, Wilde took the train to Montgomery for an appearance there. He had come and conquered with his charm and sincerity, and he left his Mobile audience just a little more sophisticated than when he had come.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge