Tricked out in cutaway velvet coat, knee breeches and vest, with snowy ruffles at the wrist and throat, author Oscar Wilde struck the Deseret News reviewer as most resembling, "in beauty of form, a grasshopper on end.
"His hair is long and flowing and his smooth face as destitute of manly adornment as his lecture is of hard common sense. The forehead recedes from where it joins the nose, the jaw is long and the mouth somewhat open and fluffy."Even though a read-through of "The Importance of Being Earnest," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "Salome" or other Wilde works remains a staple for today's student of great literature, Salt Lakers of 1882 were decidedly tepid about the young British author.
"While Mr. Wilde's language is good, his style of delivery is insipidity diluted, but is uncommonly in keeping with the floaty character of his ideas," the News writer said of the visiting aesthete.
Notwithstanding, Salt Lakers had paid from 25 cents to $1.25 and packed the Salt Lake Theater to hear the artsy young author expound on aesthetics. The front row, in fact, was lined with young men, each sporting a sunflower in his lapel.
The Salt Lake Tribune was a little kinder in its review about Wilde, but not much. It rapped the News for its "unjust dislike of the aesthetic poet," (just as it rapped almost everything the News reported in those days) but wasn't high in its own praise of Wilde's speech. Even the Salt Lake Herald, which had been most enthusiastic in its anticipation of the author's visit, could only report in honesty that the Salt Lake audience listened with "politeness, uncertainty and some astonishments." The 50-minute talk was recognized with "short-lived applause," the Herald said. Wilde was "an enthusiast without enthusiasm."
But none of the Salt Lake newspapers was so blunt as the anonymous poet who greeted the writer's tentative visit to his town with:
He comes! The simpering Oscar comes.
The West awaits with wonder,
As bullfrogs list to beating drums
Or hearken to the thunder.
Behold him here among you now.
Oh, how divinely utter.
His sensual chin, his narrow brow,
His brains like April butter.
Here in the energetic West,
We have no vacant niches
For clowns with pansies in the vest
Or dadoes on the breeches.
Etc., etc., etc.
Possibly Wilde had simply run out of steam. He had toured from New York, where he was "Wilde-ly" acclaimed, to Sacramento and had recently begun the return trip when he visited Salt Lake City. If his speech was "without strength or argument, delivered in the most flabby and meaningless manner," perhaps he had given it too many times.
Perhaps the aesthetic movement, heralding "art for art's sake" and soppily dripping its praise for communion with flowers and butterflies, was out of synch with America's frontiers. Even the title of Wilde's talk, "The Practical Application of Aesthetic Theory to Everyday Home Life and Art Ornamentation," might have rankled among pioneering Utahns whose energies still were focused on establishing a toehold in the American West. His suggestion that an artist be employed to work side by side with every homebuilder would have appeared ludicrous to many settlers happy to have a roof over their heads.
In fact, the Deseret News reported on April 8, 1882, two women had recently been arrested in Denver for flaunting the aesthetic style - one for carrying a "large, artificially aesthetic lily," and one for wearing on her hat a huge sunflower that could be seen a block away. Since the Colorado city's jails were overcrowded and since there were no specific laws they could be said to have violated, they were released.
As the Sunflower Prophet, Wilde made little impact on his Salt Lake audience, even though local theatergoers had been packing the Salt Lake Theater for weeks to see the Gilbert and Sullivan version of the comic opera "Patience" in preparation for his visit.
Not everyone was anti-Wilde. Young ladies, many with ostentatious lilies in their hair, had high hopes of discussing aesthetics with Wilde at closer range. They gathered in the dining room of the Walker House at 242 S. Main St. on the day of his arrival. After a long wait for the morning train with its famous passenger, they were disappointed when Wilde and his servant quietly slipped in the ladies' entrance to the hotel. An "embarrassed bellboy with a sunflower in his buttonhole" was assigned to see to Wilde's needs, according to a Utah Historical Quarterly article by Helen L. Warner.
On Wilde's afternoon agenda was a visit with LDS Church President John Taylor in the president's residence, the Gardo House. The rococo-style mansion, built by Brigham Young for one of his wives and dubbed the "Amelia Palace," appealed to Wilde, although President Taylor himself had sometimes described the house as "the acme of bad taste."
On a tour of the city, Wilde was anxious to see as much as possible without being seen at all. He was not wearing his velvet knee breeches, a disappointment for those who did catch a glimpse, Warner wrote.
Apparently, Wilde judged Salt Lake City to be beneath his aesthetic standard. He later commented that the Tabernacle was the shape of a soup kettle with decorations suitable for a jail. He also wrote to his friend, Mrs. Bernard Beere, in snide tones that the "Opera House of Salt Lake is an enormous affair about the size of Covent Garden, and holds with ease fourteen (polygamous) families." Included was Wilde's illustration of such families, with each male flanked by several wives. The author also told a Denver news reporter that his visit to Salt Lake City had afforded him the opportunity to see the ugliest women he had ever seen.
With tit-for-tat candor, the Deseret News criticized Wilde's elocution ("His voice lowers regularly about the middle of the sentence and rises at the end, giving a mechanical see-saw cast to his oratory) and said his ideas were unoriginal at best and stupid at worst.
"The lecture was without strength or argument, was delivered in the most flabby and meaningless manner imaginable, the whole forming an excellent burlesque on common sense," the News reviewer concluded.
Wilde's subsequent troubles back in England, including imprisonment evolving out of his homosexual attachment to a young English nobleman, were no doubt seen by some I-Told-You-So residents of Utah Territory as the natural reward for a dissipated - if aesthetic - life.