Oscar Wilde in Houston

In June 1882 the "Apostle of the Beautiful" embarked on a lecture tour through Texas, including stops in Houston and Galveston. Here's what happened.

By Michael Hardy March 14, 2014

"I have nothing to declare except my genius."Oscar Wilde, upon arriving at customs in New York for his American lecture tour. (Probably apocryphal.) 

In April 1882, while touring the western United States on an extended lecture tour, Oscar Wilde received an offer from his tour manager, a certain Colonel Morse, to extend his journey into the South. There were no shortage of speaking engagements—everywhere Wilde went in America he drew large crowds and huge publicity with his velvet suits, fanciful knee breeches, and long hair, although Wilde’s reception was sharply divided, garnering jeers and cheers in equal measure. Only 27 years old, and despite having published only one volume of verse (his most famous works still lay in the future), the Anglo-Irishman had already become an international literary celebrity as a self-appointed evangelist for the Aesthetic movement in the arts—the Apostle of the Beautiful, as he was dubbed.

And so it was that that in June 1882 an announcement appeared in the Galveston Daily News:


Instead of the speaker’s name, the announcement displayed a line portrait of Wilde above the poet’s signature. After making his first stop in Fort Worth, Wilde arrived in Galveston on June 19 to give a lecture on “Decorative Art” at the Electric Pavilion, so-named because it was the city’s first building to be wired for electricity. The next morning, the Galveston Daily News reported that a large audience composed mainly of women had attended the talk. Unfortunately, it also reported, the electricity went out for part of the lecture. Nor was that the only embarrassment. As in many other cities he visited, Wilde was heckled by some members of the audience—in this case, “a motley crowd of persons intent upon drowning the voice of the lecturer.”

Undaunted, Wilde continued on to San Antonio. In Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, Roy Morris, Jr. recounts the story of Wilde’s hat blowing off during his rail journey, and the engineer obligingly stopping the train to let him recover it. In San Antonio, Wilde stayed at the Menger Hotel (which still exists) and spoke at the Turner Opera Hall on June 20th or 21st. From there, he took a train to Houston, his final stop in Texas, where he delivered the same address to another overflow audience at Gray’s Opera House on Main Street. There, according to Morris, Jr., several theatergoers had to be forcibly removed from the gallery for jeering Wilde, and the poet was constantly interrupted by the ringing of a gong in the saloon downstairs from the theater.

Wilde’s reception in Houston was so poor that the Houston Post felt the need to chastise the offenders “for belittling a man whose ideas of art were sound and much needed in a young community, and who was himself very different from the foolish popular idea of an aesthetic Quixote charging upon American realism with a sunflower.” However, a few days later the Post ran another, more damning appraisal of Wilde’s performance, criticizing the anachronism of his dress and the effeminacy of his long hair. The anonymous writer reserved special scorn for Wilde’s stage manner:

“Mr. Wilde’s style is plainly and deplorably bad. There is no natural ease or grace in it, and it is only partly strong by a certain weight and heaviness that is at cross-purposes with his subject. His positions are few and studied; they are false in fact, and are as stiff and repulsive as the jerky attitudes of an automaton. He has but two gestures with his hands, and but two attitudes. His head is kept immovable at a certain angle, and his left shoulder is twisted in a chronic heap under his ear.”   

Furthermore, Wilde was a poor orator: the Post writer boldly offers “to put up any bright ten-year-old boy who has been taught the rudiments of declamation in an American school, as a far more natural, and therefore, true and graceful representative of the beautiful art of human speech.”

Despite his decidedly mixed reception in Texas, Wilde reflected fondly on his visit the following week during an interview with a reporter from the New Orleans Picayune:

“There are in Texas two spots which gave me infinite pleasure. These are Galveston and San Antonio. Galveston, set like a jewel in a crystal sea, was beautiful. Its fine beach, its shady avenues of oleander, and its delightful sea breezes were something to be enjoyed. It was in San Antonio, however, that I found more to please me in the beautiful ruins of the old Spanish mission churches and convents and in the relics of Spanish manners and customs impressed upon the people and architecture of the city.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his reception here, Wilde made scant reference to the Bayou City. At the end of his Picayune interview, Wilde mentioned that he was hoping to pay a visit to Jefferson Davis in Beauvoir, Mississippi (“he was fascinating, as all failures are,” Wilde would later recall) and then, according to the reporter, left with a group of men to witness a New Orleans voodoo ceremony.

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