Today, people are often famous simply for being famous. One man pretty much became the model for such a popular figure: Oscar Wilde. Wilde, noted and celebrated Irish author and wit, visited the United States in 1882. He wanted to see the States, speak to Irishmen here, and visit dignitaries—all in an effort to promote Oscar Wilde. There is a story, and it is uncertain whether or not it is true, that when Wilde got off the boat in New York City, the customs officer asked him if he had anything to declare. Wilde supposedly answered, “No, only my genius” or something to that effect.
The flamboyant Wilde was also interested in making money by going on a speaking tour of several cities. and this effort got mixed reviews. In all, the 27-year-old Irishman traveled over 15,000 miles and lectured in over 140 US cities. No matter how he was received, Oscar Wilde drew crowds of both admirers and skeptics.
The United States in 1882 was less than 20 years removed from the American Civil War, and the wounds from that conflict remained deep and fresh across a wide spectrum of the American public. Wilde became particularly interested in the political arguments made by the southern states regarding secession and self-rule—arguments that he felt his homeland of Ireland could make in its perpetual feud with Britain regarding Irish independence. Thus, Wilde also made it a point to speak to veterans of that war, on both sides, to get the opinions of each side of this important topic.
Interestingly, Wilde had a cousin who fought for the south in the war. His uncle, the brother of his mother, was one of the signatories to the document that led to the creation of the Confederate States of America. So, while Wilde’s relatives may have been pro-southern, he himself was far more interested in the legal arguments for secession.
In the course of his lengthy trip, Oscar Wilde met with many celebrities who voiced their opinions about “the late unpleasantness.“ Julia Ward Howe (author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), Longfellow, and Walt Whitman (who kissed Wilde on the lips, apparently) found him charming and sincere. Henry James and Oliver Wendell Holmes weren’t impressed by him as much. Yet, Wilde asked them all what they felt about self rule and secession, and each, to a person, told him.
As he made his way across the southern coast of the United States, enroute to a lecture appointment in Alabama, Wilde found that his train took an overnight stop near Biloxi, Mississippi. Someone in his entourage mentioned that an elderly retired official from the confederacy resided nearby. Wilde thought this would be a good chance to get another southern perspective on secession even if he personally fervently abhorred slavery.
The old man’s house was a short wagon ride away. Wilde was met at the door of the house by the old man’s wife; she ushered him in to where the old man sat, resting. Wilde was invited to spend the night, and he graciously accepd the invitation. During the simple supper, the old man said he felt unwell and retired to his bed. This disappointed Wilde somewhat. However, three young women who had dined with them stayed up with Wilde, and the four had a lively evening together. They laughed and talked well past midnight. Wilde completely charmed them, and he made quite the positive impression on them all.
The next morning, before returning to the train station to continue his journey, Oscar Wilde took a photo of himself from his bag and wrote a personal “Thank you” to the old southerner. He left it on the old man’s chair.
After their guests had departed, the old man told his wife, “I did not like that man.“ He then picked up the autographed picture Wilde had left behind and read:
“To Jefferson Davis in all loyal admiration from Oscar Wilde.”