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History

A Wilde time in Vicksburg

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(Oscar Wilde portrait by Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain)

He came into Vicksburg wearing a white vest, maroon velvet frock coat, gray bell-bottomed, tight-fitting trousers, and a cravat tied with blue in a loose bow knot.

Oscar Wilde was in town 138 years ago and made a talk at the Opera House. Wilde was a famous Irish poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and lecturer — an advocate of “art for art’s sake.”

The editor of the Vicksburg Daily Herald couldn’t resist poking some fun, stating, “The Wilde-eyed aesthete is on the war-path, southward bound. He is armed, they say, with a lily-white hand and a sunflower-sized foot.”

The 28-year old literary figure gained fame and notice not so much for his creative ability as for his style of dress, speech and mannerisms. He often wore unconventional clothing such as knee breeches, patent leather shoes and knee-length stockings. He had long hair which he parted in the middle, and he wore a flower in his lapel.

In Memphis, the podium where Wilde spoke was flanked with sunflowers and lilies, and on June 6, 1882, the Herald announced that “Vicksburg will not be slighted. The sunflower and lily are going to have a chance,” for Wilde was slated to give a lecture at the Opera House on the evening of June 14, 1882, and “tell us how many hairs a man should wear on each side of his head, how long ‘bangs’ should droop in the full ‘fly-time’ of a Southern Summer, and in fact, all about the lah-de-lah too-too-ness of a too-too world.”

Wilde’s lecture would be entited “Decorative Art.” Tickets were $1 each.

Wilde arrived on the mid-morning train on the 14th and was met by John “O.K.” Wash, city alderman, who took Wilde to Newman’s Grove at Bovina where the Roman Catholic Knights of St. John were having a picnic.

That night, a large crowd went to hear Wilde, and the paper reported that it was hot, and the audience was attentive but indicated there was little applause. Wilde wore a black coat, dark green silk stockings, low-quarter black patent leather boots and a white shirt with ruffles on the front, collar and cuffs. He carried a stylish cane — or maybe it was a parasol.

He told Vicksburgers that people instinctively love what is beautiful just because it is beautiful. He thought art schools were too narrow in their views, for art need not have moral or practical values. He thought art was derived from nature — her tints, tones and radiant harmonies. Vicksburgers should blend forest, flower, stream and crag, he said, for the South should be the “land of art, the home of song, and the cradle of beauty.”

That night Wilde stayed at the Washington Hotel, and the next day he visited the Herald office. Two days later the editor wrote that Wilde “is a tip-top fellow, a fine scholar, a talented poet; as a companion he is sociable and entertaining, and in a business way sharp and shrewd. The press has done him great injustice.”

Wilde was slated to make appearances in New Orleans, Texas and Mobile, Alabama, but he planned to make a side-trip to the Gulf Coast, for his greatest desire in America was to meet a man he greatly admired — Jefferson Davis. He learned that by the route he was taking, Beauvoir was about 400 miles away, and though Wilde acknowledged that was a long way to go, it was “not too far to go to see such a man as Jefferson Davis.”

Wilde wrote Davis and asked for an audience with him, and though Davis thought Wilde a bit silly, Mrs. Davis was thrilled at the prospective visit. Davis, never impressed with celebrities, courteously invited Wilde to come for supper and spend the night.

That night Mrs. Davis, daughter Winnie and a cousin, Mary Davis, found Wilde enchanting, but Mr. Davis was somewhat aloof though polite. He obviously did not care for Wilde’s manner, and he excused himself (doctor’s orders, he said) and retired.

Wilde also felt restrained in Davis’ presence, but later he had a pleasant evening in conversation with the ladies. Varina made a good pencil sketch of him, and he inscribed a book of his poetry for her.

The next day Wilde left for Mobile, and when Davis went to his office, he found a large photograph of Wilde inscribed to him “in all loyal admiration.” When Varina scolded her husband for his lack of cordiality, he simply replied, “I did not like the man.” Wilde had charmed most of America but not his hero.

Though the Herald editor had made fun of Wilde, he wrote a few weeks later, “Why criticize dear Oscar Wilde so severely? He is not so utterly too too …”

In later years Wilde wrote some outstanding literary works such as “The Importance of Being Earnest” and The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Later in life he served time in a British prison on a morals charge. He died in Paris in 1900.


Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.

Copyright © 2021 Vicksburg Daily News.

Vicksburg Daily News