One of Oscar Wilde’s stops during his 1882 tour of the United States was Yale College. The audience was puzzled but attentive, according to the Times, which estimated that more than a thousand people swelled the opera house on Chapel Street. Following ancient custom, one group of students tried to razz the speaker by hollering and applauding at unobtrusive passages; before the performance they also draped a giant sunflower fan across several front seats. Administrators whisked the fan away. 1
During his speech, Wilde told students, as he had elsewhere, that by applying the study of aesthetics to the distinctive beauties of their native land they might make their campus the center for a renaissance of American art.
Aesthetic sentiment leads to the other virtues, Wilde suggested. Wilde praised Yale’s achievements on the athletic field but reminded his audience that with sports the point should not be the trophy. The college should erect a Greek statue in the gymnasium, he said, to remind students that the end of endeavor is self-development, which for sports means the development of the beauty and strength of the human body. For the Greeks, the love for athletic culture grew from love for the art that celebrates it. (This is consistent with arguments that Wilde would put forth in 1891 in “The Decay of Lying.”)
Wilde also sought to associate his movement with cultural power and legitimacy. The story with which he began the lecture traced the beginnings of the aesthetic revival to a remark of his mentor, John Ruskin, as Wilde accompanied him on a stroll to the river. (The anecdote should be taken with recognition that a successful lecture requires good stories, and also that Ruskin’s fame and authority could throw a halo over the younger aesthetic movement.) Ruskin asked whether the study of beauty should be the sole concern of those interested in aesthetics. Shouldn’t they also seek to elevate the lives of townsfolk, to spread a gospel of beauty and give others the tonic effects of beautiful surroundings? Thus began Ruskin’s road-building project, where students of art spent their spare hours carting mud out of the Oxfordshire marshland. (Ruskin’s own accounts of the project put greater emphasis on the tonic value of labor, but this is not a virtue that Wilde was disposed to appreciate.)
1 “Oscar Wilde in New Haven: A Large Audience Trying to Fathom his Meaning—Advice to Yale Students.” The New York Times, 2 February 1882, pg. 1.
The Times estimated an audience of 1,200 people, including 200 students, “most of them in the galleries.” The New Haven Opera House seats about a thousand, according to a local history of the city. The Timesman might have noted a capacity crowd and miscalculated the number of people in it. See William Decrow, Yale and “The City of Elms” (New Haven: W.E. Decrow, 1885): 114.