When working on my biography of Oscar Wilde, I found tracking my subject’s footsteps to be a welcome diversion from toiling in the library. And a useful one, too. I was fascinated to find the modest, terraced house on Westland Row, in Dublin, where he was born, and, just around the corner, the handsome, high-ceilinged mansion on Merrion Square to which the family moved when Wilde was barely a year old. It seemed little wonder that, raised under such a roof, he developed an assured sense of his own importance.
Tracking Wilde’s movements led me not only on happy wanderings through the streets of Oxford (where he honed his wit), London (where he made his name), and Paris (where he expanded his artistic horizons and lived out his exile), but also along less familiar ways: across the Peloponnese on a bicycle (following the course taken, on horseback, by the undergraduate Wilde and three friends in the spring of 1877); to Bad Homburg, Germany, where Wilde “took the waters” after the season of overindulgence that followed his first theatrical success, with Lady Windermere’s Fan; to the unglamorous seaside town of Worthing, in West Sussex, where he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest; to the cramped cell in Reading Gaol, Berkshire, in which Wilde served most of his two-year prison sentence; to the roof of the Palermo Cathedral, where he chatted up the youthful sacristans.
It brought me to America too. As a young man, Wilde had spent the whole of 1882 in the U.S. and Canada, lecturing upon “The Decorative Arts.” He went everywhere, from New York and Chicago to Washington and Cincinnati. He visited California (“a very Italy, without its art”) and toured the South. He lectured in the Canadian Maritimes, the New England industrial towns, the Midwest, and the fashionable summer resorts of Rhode Island and the Catskills.
I can’t pretend that I visited all—or even very many—of the 100-plus places on Wilde’s crowded itinerary. Utica, Fort Wayne, Dubuque, and Cedar Rapids remain unknown to me (as yet). I should be interested to visit Aurora, Illinois, where poor Oscar had his smallest recorded audience, and the receipts of $7.35 failed to cover his traveling expenses.
I did, though, make a trip up into the Rockies to see Leadville, Colorado, where Wilde memorably lectured to an engaged—if vociferous—audience of silver miners at the Tabor Opera House. Wilde thought his rough, red-shirted audience the best dressed that he had encountered on his travels, and—taking the disgraceful antics of Benvenuto Cellini as his example—had enthused them with the idea that there was no necessary connection between art and respectability.
Sadly, the dress sense of the modern Leadville-ites had fallen off considerably since the high days of 1882. And, to judge by the shops on the main street, while they didn’t appear to have embraced respectability with any great energy, neither did they seem to have taken to art.
Matthew Sturgis’s Oscar Wilde: A Life is out now from Knopf