Friday, April 10, 2009

Wilde's Wild West

Adapted from Jan Wellington, Literary Traveler website, 2007.

The West is a slippery phenomenon to define, but travelers seem to know when they have reached it. For Wilde, in fact, it began in sight of the Rockies, whose irregular grandeur was matched by the corresponding rough, aesthetic appeal of its people: cowboys, outlaws, entrepreneurs, prostitutes, and miners in particular, with their lack of Eastern polish. For Wilde, the West was the geographical and mental space where classic American virtues like toughness, rugged individualism, and spacious freedom had not yet fallen prey to the industrial age.

Rugged individualism was likely not what Americans envisioned when they pictured Wilde as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Bunthorne, who, as the song goes, was a most intense young man:

A soulful-eyed young man,
An ultra-poetical, super-aesthetical,
Out-of-the way young man

However, they discovered that, though “out-of-the-way” he might be, in some crucial respects he was anything but Bunthorne. From the time Wilde disembarked in New York, Americans were surprised to observe that, despite his elegant hands and languid gestures, the Aesthete was a strapping young man who, offstage, ate and drank with gusto and spoke with genial frankness. They learned that even his oft-ridiculed stage dress of black velvet jacket, lace cravat, silk knee breeches, and patent leather pumps could be understood in terms of pragmatics. As Wilde explained, “When a man is going to walk or row, or perform feats which require a display of strength and muscle, the trousers are done away with and knee breeches are worn.”

Americans were discovering that indeed, Wilde was different, but different in a different way – a difference not only perceived but valued in the West. After all, that quintessential westerner, the cowboy, enjoyed freedoms unique in Victorian America: intimacy with women outside of marriage, intimate (though not necessarily sexual) relationships with men, and even the playful donning of women’s garb. To this alternative masculine subculture, their eccentric trans-Atlantic visitor would have seemed uncannily familiar, and thus it is no surprise that at least some Westerners found space in their tradition of individualism for one whose masculinity was complicated by a “feminine” aesthetic and appearance.

In truth, Wilde’s long tresses and outsized hats were not all that eccentric, for Americans had come to associate long hair on men with boldness and adventure. In the West, long hair distinguished masculine men like Wild Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer, and Buffalo Bill Cody. In Denver, a reporter for the Times described Wilde in his flowing locks, wide-brimmed hat, and the long duster he had recently adopted as “not unlike a Texas ranger who had struck it rich.” The Denver Republican declared approvingly “that if placed in a mining camp dance hall, [the Aesthete] would pass for a real bold, bad man.”

Indeed, frontier tradition placed a premium on its “bold, bad men” with their prowess at fighting, drinking, and cards. Even before Wilde stopped in Colorado on his return from the west coast, he had proved himself up to such feats. In San Francisco, he foiled an attempt by the Bohemian Club to ply him with liquor and prove him a “Nancy boy”; after out-drinking (and out-talking) them all, he was given a proud place in a group photograph of the club. In the same city, he thwarted another attempt on his manhood by professing his ignorance of poker, bluffing bafflement, and then beating all challengers at the game.

In the course of his travels, the “bold, bad” Aesthete would encounter traces of the West’s quintessential anti-hero, the outlaw. Not long before Wilde arrived in America, Pat Garrett had gunned down Billy the Kid and embarked on a tour to promote Billy’s biography. Later, passing through Jesse James’s home town in Kansas, Wilde would learn that James himself had just been assassinated by a member of his own gang, an event that sent the town into mourning and scrambling to buy Jesse’s artifacts. Well aware of the romantic appeal of the social outcast, the traveler wrote in a letter home that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshipers, and always take [their] heroes from the criminal classes.” In an eerie foreshadowing of his own fate, Wilde himself became an honorary member of the outlaw pantheon: in Omaha, a reporter for the Bee noted his resemblance to Big Nose George (Parrot), a train-robber associated with the James gang who, a year earlier, had been jailed and lynched in Wyoming. Even in comparatively decorous Salt Lake City, Wilde would be affectionately dubbed “untamed Oscah,” and while he and the Latter-Day Saints had little in common, there is ample evidence that Westerners elsewhere recognized him as one of their own.

Wilde’s appearance in Leadville, Colorado, was a historic moment that scholars and other aficionados have elevated to the realm of myth, and where affinities between Wilde and the West converge. Despite an initial bout of altitude sickness, by show time the lecturer made a promising impression: a reporter noted that he “stumbled onto the stage with a stride more becoming a giant backwoodsman than an aesthete.” According to Wilde in a letter home, while a few amongst his audience of city notables and miners lapsed into the arms of Morpheus, the crowd was not immune to his efforts to raise their aesthetic consciousness: “When I told them in my boyish eloquence of the secret of Botticelli the strong men wept like children.”

But it was Wilde’s descent into the Matchless Mine – first to talk about the ethics of art, then to share a spirited dinner with the miners – that has become the stuff of legend. In another letter he recounted “the miners’ surprise that art and appetite could go hand in hand . . . when I lit a long cigar,” he reports, “they cheered till the silver fell in dust from the roof . . . and when I quaffed a cocktail without flinching, they unanimously pronounced me in their grand simple way a bully boy with no glass eye – artless and spontaneous praise which touched me more than the pompous panegyrics of literary critics ever did or could.”

The Leadville miners, however, did not seem to mind being turned into works of fiction, but cheered as Wilde drove a silver spike into the lode that would bear his name. Years after his visit, they recalled their guest with affection, one reportedly declaring, “[t]hat Oscar Wilde is some art guy, but he can drink any of us under the table and afterwards carry us home two at a time.” While this claim may be a case of fond exaggeration, it reveals yet another affinity between Wilde, with his genius for hyperbolic paradox, and the West, that fertile breeding ground of tall tales and outlaw heroes.

In truth, the Wild West was vanishing even as Oscar traversed it. The realm of the open range and anything goes – the milieu of grizzly bears and buffaloes, cowboys and outlaws – was fast becoming a tall tale spun by novelists and by the showmen who embodied it: showmen like Buffalo Bill and – of course – Oscar Wilde, who put his genius into his life and made it art. While he would later star in a tragedy, in his Wilde West show he played the part of intellectual, languishing Aesthete as bold, bad outlaw, and his Western audience ate it up.

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