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Fall 2004
Wild Wilde West
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Portrait of Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde never set foot in Los Angeles, but his presence looms large at UCLA's William Andrews Clark Memorial Library

by Anne Burke
Illustration by Olaf Hajek

On January 2, 1882, Oscar Wilde, at 27 London’s reigning literary darling, arrived in New York for a speaking tour of America. Asked by a customs agent if he had anything to declare, Wilde is said to have replied, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

While press critics lampooned Wilde as an effeminate aesthete with nothing to say — the newspaperman Ambrose Bierce wrote: “He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck” — Wilde’s tour of America was a smash success. The original four-month schedule stretched to nearly a year to accommodate the crush of ticket seekers. Though Wilde had yet to pen The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray or anything else that would establish his place in the literary canon, fans beseeched him for autographs and locks of his brown hair.

In late March, Wilde traveled to California to give lectures at Oakland, San Francisco, Stockton and San Jose. Northern California in the bloom of spring delighted Wilde. “Very Italy, without the art” he wrote of the Golden State in a March 27 letter to his friend Norman Forbes-Robertson. The “Apostle of Aestheticism,” as Wilde was billed in America, may have intended to spend time in Southern California. In that same letter, he boasts that the railroad has offered him “a special train and private car to go down the coast to Los Angeles, a sort of Naples here. …” For whatever reason, the trip did not take place.

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