Oscar Wilde’s tour of Texas gives us life

“Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without necessities!”

By W. F. StrongJune 29, 2016 9:53 am

Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” He would be pleased to know that we’re going to talk a good deal about him in the next few minutes.

Few people know that this great playwright, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, the author of “A Picture of Dorian Grey” and “The Importance of Being Earnest”, lectured in Texas in 1882. He was just 27 years old.

He liked reciting his entire name like that to show off his Irish heritage. He said he had been shedding names since he was a boy and hoped one day to be known simply as Wilde.

At 27, he was already enormously famous in Europe as a writer, theater critic, an architectural historian, a Classicist, and the leader of the Aesthetic Movement. He was known for dressing opulently in purples and brocades, often with an eccentric sunflower in his lapel. So there was great curiosity about what would happen when this Irish Dandy, as he was known, lectured in the macho world of Texas cowboys.

When he had passed through customs in New York City, he famously said, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” So, many Texans, being Texcentric as we are, wondered what the genius would think about our state. Well, for the most part, he liked Texas.

As he took the train to Galveston, through East Texas and Houston, he was fascinated by all the alligators lying lazily on the muddy banks of the bayous.

His first lecture was in Galveston, which was the largest city in Texas at the time. Oscar loved it there. He said, “Galveston, set like a jewel in a crystal sea, was beautiful. Its fine beach, it’s shady avenues of oleander, and its delightful sea breezes were something to be enjoyed.”

He said, “The people of Galveston were wonderful to me. They made me an honorary Colonel in the Texas Rangers. So I wrote immediately to all my friends and told them that they should henceforth address me as Colonel Wilde.”

From Galveston, he traveled to San Antonio by train, in what he regarded as the monstrous Texas heat. Incidentally, he said that traveling by train, whizzing by everything at 40 miles an hour, was no proper way to see new country. The proper way to see new country was on a horse.

In San Antonio, Wilde stayed at the Menger Hotel, which of course still exists today. And even in 1882, the Menger was known for luxury. And so was Wilde. He often said, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without necessities!”

He toured the famous missions in San Antonio. He said, “The San Jose Mission was the finest example of beautiful architecture I came across in all of the Americas.”

He was quite moved by “those old Spanish churches with their picturesque remains of tower and dome, and their handsome carved stonework, standing in the…sunshine of the Texas prairie.”

As for the Alamo, though, he described the “noble” structure’s condition as “monstrous.” He thought it a shame that Texas had allowed this most “sacred of shrines to fall into such Philistine conditions.” The Alamo had been, in those days, used as an Army depot.

He lectured in San Antonio on architecture and interior design. He loved the local use of the natural wood and stone that was so available in the hill country, but warned about the overuse of horrid wallpaper. He believed that a child raised in the ambiance of such wallpaper could later use it as a “defense for a life of crime.”

Wilde was asked in Louisiana how his lecture in San Antonio had gone and he said that the women had loved it, but the men, not so much. Indeed, the men were quite a distraction, he said, “walking in and out with their squeaky boots and clangy spurs. The men were going out for beer, you see. Evidently,” he said, “men in Texas cannot survive more than an hour between beers.”

If he were to return today, 135 years later, he would likely find us about the same.

W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.