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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Oscar Wilde visits Walt Whitman in Camden, New Jersey

It was on this day in 1882 that twenty-seven-year-old Oscar Wilde, on his first lecture tour of America, paid a visit to the ailing sixty-two-year-old Walt Whitman at Whitman’s brother’s home in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman was delighted with the meeting, as he told a reporter from The Philadelphia Press who came to interview him that evening. To Whitman “[Wilde] seemed . . . like a great big, splendid boy.”

After they shared a bottle of home-brewed elderberry wine (made by Whitman’s sister-in-law Louisa) in his parlor, Whitman took Wilde to his “den” on the upper floor of the house and found his guest surprisingly unaffected. “I imagine that he laid aside any affectation he is said to have, and that I saw behind the scenes.” In discussing his aesthetic philosophy, Wilde reportedly said, “I can’t listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style or by beauty of theme.” Whitman disagreed:
Why, Oscar, it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty by itself is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.
Wilde had eagerly arranged the meeting through his Philadelphia publisher and claimed a familiarity with Whitman’s work “almost from the cradle” owing to his mother having regularly read to him from one of the first copies of Leaves of Grass published in Ireland. Wilde reported his impressions to the Boston Herald ten days later:
I spent the most charming day I have spent in America [with Whitman] . . . He is the grandest man I have ever seen. The simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age, and is not peculiar to any one people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times. Probably he is dreadfully misunderstood.
Wilde frequently mentioned his fondness for Whitman in his lectures and reminisced at length about the visit in an interview in February:
The room which has most impressed me [in America is] a little bare whitewashed room . . . [upstairs at 431 Stevens Street] in Camden town, where I met Walt Whitman, whom I admire intensely. . . There was a big chair for him and a little stool for me, a pine table on which was a copy of Shakespeare, a translation of Dante, and a cruse of water. Sunlight filled the room, and over the roofs of the houses opposite were the masts of the ships that lay in the river. But then the poet needs no rose to blossom on his walls for him, because he carries nature always in his heart. This room contains all the simple conditions for art—sunlight, good air, pure water, a sight of ships, and the poet’s works.
Also of interest:
  • In the November 1882 issue of Century Magazine Helen Gray Cone published a parody “Narcissus in Camden,” which reimagines the conversation between the two poets as a poetic dialogue.
  • Gary Scharnhorst’s biographical note (PDF) on the Whitman Archive includes more information about Whitman and Wilde, who met again in May.
  • In 2010 the University of Illinois Press published Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews, edited by Scharnhorst and Matthew Hofer, which includes annotated transcriptions of forty-eight of the ninety-eight interviews Wilde gave during his 1882 tour.
Related LOA works: Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose

2 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful post. Thank you.

    "My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction," says Whitman.

    A result of what?

    Two people exchanging their finest ideas?

    Would I were a participant in their conversation so I could press him on just that point.

    Rgds,
    Kevin

    ReplyDelete
  2. today in the news Camden NJ was mentioned for laying off around 167 police and having the the 2nd highest city crime rate in the nation.

    Times are changing

    ReplyDelete

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