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Henry James Thought Oscar Wilde Was a Talentless Self-Promoter. Here's What Happened When The Two Met.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On January 8, 1882, Henry James, visiting Washington from his home in London, wrote this in a letter to a friend in Britain:

I believe that Washington is the place in the world where money—or the absence of it, matters least. It is very queer and yet extremely pleasant: informal, familiar, heterogeneous, good-natured, essentially social and conversational, enormously big and yet extremely provincial, indefinably ridiculous and yet eminently agreeable…. The sky is blue, the sun is warm, the women are charming, and at dinners the talk is always general.

James’s opinion of that talk changed when the subject turned to the imminent arrival of Oscar Wilde, who was then years away from writing The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or any of the great works for which we honor him today. In 1882, Wilde was touring America, where he had arrived on January 3. The “Aesthetic Apostle,” as he liked to call himself, was presenting lectures on interior decorating, singing hosannas to wainscoting and red-brick floor tiles, while wearing satin breeches, silk stockings, patent-leather pumps, and a velvet coat with lavender lace trim. Most Americans had never heard of him.

James, an American by birth but an Englishman by temperament—he’d been living in Britain since 1876—had arrived in Washington several days before Wilde. His hosts in the capital were two of the city’s leading social figures: the historian Henry Adams (a descendant of two American presidents) and his wife, Marion, known to virtually everyone as Clover.1 James and Wilde hadn’t met in London, but they were aware of each other. James, 48, was the author of Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady, novels acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic. Wilde, 27, a recent Oxford graduate, was an unproduced playwright and an amusing dandy on London’s party circuit. He had yet to produce anything of authentic literary value, but what he had generated in America, after a parade of party appearances and press interviews in New York and Philadelphia, was star quality. This was something James envied.

The novelist found Wilde’s antics distasteful—James avoided the press—but he saw that Washington society was abuzz at the prospect of mingling with the lily-worshiping aesthete at a party hosted by Judge Edward Loring and his wife, to be held on January 22. This eagerness wasn’t too surprising; the Washington Post had reported that a character in the popular operetta by Gilbert & Sullivan then playing in the capital—the vainglorious poet Bunthorne in Patience—was based on Wilde. In fact, Wilde’s lecture tour of America was sponsored by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the producer of Gilbert & Sullivan’s works, as a means of promoting that operetta. James, who rarely turned down a dinner invite, had accepted an invitation to the Lorings’ party.

One of the only well-connected Washingtonians immune to Wilde’s star power was Clover Adams. “I have asked Henry James not to bring his friend Oscar Wilde [to my home] when he comes,” she wrote in a letter to her father. “I must keep out thieves and noodles.” It seems clear that “noodle” was Mrs. Adams’s way of impugning Wilde’s masculinity, a conclusion supported by this line from another of her letters: “the sexes of my nouns are as undecided as that of Oscar Wilde.” As has been pointed out by several of James’s biographers, the novelist’s sexuality was the source of considerable psychic agitation for him, so it’s probable he was not thrilled by Mrs. Adams’s remarks, least of all by her assumption that he and Wilde, whose brazen efforts at self-promotion James found so vulgar, were friends.

This may explain why the sight of Wilde in breeches on January 22, brandishing a large yellow handkerchief in his lace-encircled hand as he bragged (sometimes accurately) of his close friendships with the painter Edward Burne-Jones, the art critic John Ruskin, and the poet Algernon Swinburne to an adoring group of Washingtonians that encircled him at the Lorings’ party—a fete attended by several United States senators—was too much for James to take. So he pretended it didn’t happen.

“I went last night to the Lorings,” he wrote to Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, “and found there the repulsive and fatuous Oscar Wilde, whom, I am happy to say, no one was looking at.” We know James was lying about this because Harriet Loring, the daughter of the party’s hosts, described Oscar’s appearance in her parents’ home with these words: “We had Oscar! He burst upon our view one Sunday—tights, yellow handkerchief and all. He is the most gruesome object I ever saw, but he was very amusing. Full of Irish keenness and humor and really interesting.”

James’s false take on Wilde’s social skills makes his decision to call upon Wilde two days later, at Washington’s Arlington Hotel, rather curious. Indeed, this meeting has puzzled scholars for decades. Perhaps, as the late biographer Richard Ellmann speculated, James overheard Wilde praising his work at the Lorings’ home and wanted to thank him personally. We know that a few months later Wilde said “no living Englishman can be compared to [William Dean] Howells and [Henry] James as novelists,” and, as a reporter in Cincinnati watched, Wilde purchased several of their books so he could reread them. But Michèle Mendelssohn, a historian at the University of Oxford, believes it was sexual attraction—implicit or explicit—that drew James to Wilde’s hotel suite, where Wilde made it clear he wasn’t interested.2

What is overlooked in both theories is the role of James’s envy. Though James was a well-known writer, he was not a particularly well-compensated one. (Fortunately for him, he belonged to a wealthy family.) His suspicion that Wilde was making more from speaking fees than he was earning from book royalties may have made James want to take a personal assessment of the man who had managed that annoying feat. This curiosity was surely tinged with scorn and, more than likely, fear. As a novelist, James saw himself as a member of an artistic elite that Wilde had no qualifications to join. At least not yet. But as James had witnessed—whether he admitted it or not—the dandy in velvet was celebrated in America not just by society swells but by persons of genuine achievement—senators, cabinet members, and the like—and, even more exasperating, was getting paid handsomely for it.

When James looked at Wilde, he saw a repugnant future: an age when the talent that mattered most wasn’t artistic but narcissistic—a genius for self-puffery and public preening. To James, this was monstrous. Perhaps his intellectual curiosity, maybe even his sense of self-preservation, compelled him to have a face-to-face meeting with the man who was ushering that vulgar worldview into existence.

What we know for certain is that the meeting didn’t go very well. (It’s possible Wilde was just as nervous to meet James, a novelist of genuine standing, as James was to meet him.) James told Wilde he was “nostalgic for London.” “Really?” Wilde said. “You care for places? The world is my home.” Whether or not Wilde meant that as an insult, James took it as one. Hearing of Wilde’s busy lecture schedule only made him more perturbed. Wilde boasted that he would soon be in Boston, the home of the aesthetic movement in the United States, to lecture on aesthetics. It’s possible he repeated something a star-struck woman had told him at a party in Manhattan: “Oh, Mr. Wilde, you have been adored in New York. In Boston you will be worshipped!”

Wilde had never been to Boston, of course, but he had a letter of introduction, he told James, from Wilde’s dearest friend in England, the artist Edward Burne-Jones, to Burne-Jones’s dearest friend in America, the Harvard professor of art Charles Eliot Norton. James, who knew both men, was neither impressed nor amused by Wilde’s claim to be so well connected. When he returned from the hotel to Clover Adams’s townhouse, James—who would draw an unflattering picture of an effete, name-dropping, Wide-like character (named Gabriel Nash) in his novel The Tragic Muse—told his friend she was right about the Irish aesthete. Wilde is a “fatuous fool,” a “tenth-rate cad,” and an “unclean beast,” James said, opinions Mrs. Adams surely spread among her friends and beyond.3

Wilde would leave the capital before that happened, however, taking a train to New York, and then, after an overnight stay, on to Boston, his precious letters of introduction in hand. It would be a while before he was fully aware of James’s loathing for his fame-hunting ways. What he would find out a lot sooner was that, for reasons that mystified him, James’s friend in Boston, Professor Norton, could never find the time to meet with him that winter. 

  1. Mrs. Adams is believed to be the model for two of James’s most famous characters, Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer.

  2. There is no conclusive evidence that Wilde had had any homosexual experiences by 1882.

  3. Wilde would strike back at James years later, in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” in which he wrote: “Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty.”