Wilde in America


On December 24, 1881, Oscar Wilde sailed for America from Liverpool aboard the S.S. Arizona bound for New York. The reasons for his much-heralded visit seemed clear enough: to promote Gilbert & Sullivan’s latest operetta, Patience, while conducting a series of lectures on subjects of his own choosing.

The ship arrived late on January 2, 1882, and lay at quarantine overnight. On the morning of January 3, the Arizona pulled into its dock and passengers headed for the customs shed at Castle Garden, which was the point of entry for visitors to NewYork and a major receiving station for immigrants prior to the opening of Ellis Island some ten years later.

Wilde was interviewed by an avid press while still on board. He told the New York Sun that he was disappointed in the Atlantic, a sentiment he repeated about Niagara Falls, and one that was much publicized and ridiculed.

Anything To Declare?

It was also on this occasion, while at Customs, that Oscar Wilde is reputed to have made one of his most oft-repeated quotations: that he nothing to declare except his genius. But did he really say this, and what is the source of the quotation?


I have nothing to declare except my genius.

There is no primary source evidence that Wilde made this statement.


In the early, and sometimes unreliable, source book for Wilde’s tour of America Oscar Wilde Discovers America: 1882, (Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith,1936) it is asserted (p.35) that upon arrival in New York Wilde stayed at the Grand Hotel. Their source for this was the desk clerk at the Grand, reportedly a Michael Toner, who gave them the story in interview in preparation for the book in 1935, over 50 years after the event.

While no corroboration for the Grand story has been found, there would be no reason to doubt it (other than dimming memory) were it not for two other known pieces of information:

(1) that Wilde did in fact stay at the Grand Hotel in 1882, but this was in May on his return rom his travels west [1]. So Toner may have misremembered the date, or might have thought that Wilde’s return in May was his first visit.

(2) that Wilde’s manager, Col. W.F. Morse says otherwise [2]:


We also know that Wilde was indeed staying in a private house as early as January 8 based on an interview given to a newspaper [3].

New York City

In 1882 New York was a gas-lit city of a million people living through a time of growth that encompassed the gentrification of a commercial district around the Ladies’ Mile, and residential displacement as the city’s wealthy moved uptown.

The Statue of Liberty was not yet in the harbor, the Brooklyn Bridge was still being constructed; the tallest building was Trinity Church. Such was Wilde’s milieu. With his first lecture on January 9th at Chickering Hall thus began an almost year-long lecture tour of America.

In 1883 after Wilde returned from his year long lecture tour in America he penned notes for a talk entitled Impressions of America (aka Personal Impressions of America) which he gave in various cities in the following few years.

The Huntington Library has Wilde’s autograph notes for the talk in outline form on 12 leaves.

In March 1906 Stuart Mason, Wilde’s future bibliographer, published a booklet of the text (opposite, Mason 653) in a limited edition of 500 copies.