Algernon Swinburne’s letters have been so much fun that I thought I would try out Oscar Wilde’s, which should be even more fun, or at least funnier. Well, not yet, not quite. I am reading The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000), ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, a book that has 1,230 pages of letters. I am up to page 192 at this point, when Wilde returns to England from his 1882 American lecture tour, which felt like a good spot for a break. Wilde’s letters are just beginning to be really funny. The trip to America practically turned him into Mark Twain.
In England Wilde gave a lecture titled “Impressions of America” (1883) – it is in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde – that is pretty close to stand up comedy.
I had to descend a mine in a rickety bucket in which it was impossible to be graceful. Having got into the heart of the mountain I had supper, the first course being whisky, the second whisky and the third whisky.
That joke appears in two more versions in the letters, where Wilde was polishing it.
Is this next one even Wilde’s joke? It feels kind of moldy:
So infinitesimal did I find the knowledge of Art, west of the Rocky Mountains, that an art patron – one who in his day had been a miner – actually sued the railroad company for damages because the plaster cast of Venus de Milo, which he had imported from Paris, had been delivered minus the arms. And, what is more surprising still, he gained his case and the damages.
Now this one is pure Wilde:
I was disappointed with Niagara – most people must be disappointed with Niagara. Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous water fall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life… To appreciate it really one has to see it from underneath the fall, and to do that it is necessary to be dressed in a yellow oil-skin, which is as ugly as a mackintosh – and I hope none of you ever wear one.
Wilde’s tour was comprehensive. Griggsville, Illinois. Leadville, Colorado. That’s where Wilde went down into the silver mine with the miners who attended his lecture on “the Ethics of Art.”
I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted. I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the inquiry “Who shot him”?
Twain at this point would have tightened up the joke, or maybe spread it out, but he of course had twenty years of additional humoristic experience. Wilde was only 28, 29 when he was in America, lecturing the silver miners and amateur painters on aesthetics and dandyism and the art of the English Renaissance. Wilde gets funnier later.
Heck of a job I have done writing about Wilde’s letters.