08 July 2011

Impressions of America, 1882


Oscar Wilde
Impressions of America 1882

I fear I cannot picture America as altogether an Elysium—perhaps,
from the ordinary standpoint I know but little about the country.
I cannot give its latitude or longitude; I cannot compute the value
of its dry goods, and I have no very close acquaintance with its
politics. These are matters which may not interest you, and they
certainly are not interesting to me.

The first thing that struck me on landing in America was that
if the Americans are not the most well-dressed people in the
world, they are the most comfortably dressed. Men are seen there
with the dreadful chimney-pot hat, but there are very few hatless
men; men wear the shocking swallowtail coat, but few are to be
seen with no coat at all. There is an air of comfort in the
appearance of the people which is a marked contrast to that seen
in this country, where, too often, people are seen in close contact
with rags.

The next thing particularly noticeable is that everybody seems
in a hurry to catch a train. This is a state of things which is not
favourable to poetry or romance. Had Romeo or Juliet been in a
constant state of anxiety about trains, or had their minds been
agitated by the question of return-tickets, Shakespeare could not
have given us those lovely balcony scenes which are so full of
poetry and pathos.

America is the noisiest country that ever existed. One is
waked up in the morning, not by the singing of the nightingale,
but by the steam whistle. It is surprising that the sound practical
sense of the Americans does not reduce this intolerable noise. All
Art depends upon exquisite and delicate sensibility, and such
continual turmoil must ultimately be destructive of the musical

There is not so much beauty to be found in American cities as
in Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury or Winchester, where are lovely
relics of a beautiful age; but still there is a good deal of beauty to
be seen in them now and then, but only where the American has
not attempted to create it. Where the Americans have attempted
to produce beauty they have signally failed. A remarkable
characteristic of the Americans is the manner in which they have
applied science to modern life.

This is apparent in the most cursory stroll through New York.
In England an inventor is regarded almost as a crazy man, and in
too many instances invention ends in disappointment and
poverty. In America an inventor is honoured, help is
forthcoming, and the exercise of ingenuity, the application of
science to the work of man, is there the shortest road to wealth.
There is no country in the world where machinery is so lovely as
in America.

I have always wished to believe that the line of strength and
the line of beauty are one. That wish was realized when I
contemplated American machinery. It was not until I had seen
the water-works at Chicago that I realized the wonders of
machinery; the rise and fall of the steel rods, the symmetrical
motion of the great wheels is the most beautifully rhythmic thing
I have ever seen. One is impressed in America, but not
favourably impressed, by the inordinate size of everything. The
country seems to try to bully one into a belief in its power by its
impressive bigness.

It is in the colonies, and not in the mother country, that the old
life of the country really exists. If one wants to realize what
English Puritanism is—not at its worst (when it is very bad), but
at its best, and then it is not very good—I do not think one can
find much of it in England, but much can be found about Boston
and Massachusetts. We have got rid of it. America still preserves
it, to be, I hope, a short-lived curiosity.

San Francisco is a really beautiful city. China Town, peopled
by Chinese labourers, is the most artistic town I have ever come
across. The people—strange, melancholy Orientals, whom many
people would call common, and they are certainly very
poor—have determined that they will have nothing about them
that is not beautiful. In the Chinese restaurant, where these
navvies meet to have supper in the evening, I found them
drinking tea out of china cups as delicate as the petals of a roseleaf,
whereas at the gaudy hotels I was supplied with a delf cup
an inch and a half thick. When the Chinese bill was presented it
was made out on rice paper, the account being done in Indian ink
as fantastically as if an artist had been etching little birds on a

From Salt Lake City one travels over great plains of Colorado
and up the Rocky Mountains, on the top of which is Leadville,
the richest city in the world. It has also got the reputation of
being the roughest, and every man carries a revolver. I was told
that if I went there they would be sure to shoot me or my
travelling manager. I wrote and told them that nothing that they
could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me. They
are miriers—men working in metals, so I lectured them on the
Ethics of Art. I read them passages from the autobiography of
Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted. I was
reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I
explained that he had been dead for some little time which
elicited the enquiry ‘Who shot him?* They afterwards took me
to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art
criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a
Please do not shoot the pianist.

He is doing his best.

The mortality among pianists in that place is marvellous.
Then they asked me to supper, and having accepted, I had to
descend a mine in a rickety bucket in which it was impossible to
be graceful. Having got into the heart of the mountain I had
supper, the first course being whisky, the second whisky and the
third whisky.

Among the more elderly inhabitants of the South I found a
melancholy tendency to date every event of importance by the
late war. ‘How beautiful the moon is tonight,* I once remarked
to a gentleman who was standing next to me. ‘Yes,* was his
reply, ‘but you should have seen it before the war.*

So infinitesimal did I find the knowledge of Art, west of the
Rocky Mountains, that an art patron—one who in his day had
been a miner—actually sued the railroad company for damages
because the plaster cast of Venus of Milo, which he had
imported from Paris, had been delivered minus the arms. And,
what is more surprising still, he gained his case and the damages.
Pennsylvania, with its rocky gorges and woodland scenery,
reminded me of Switzerland. The prairie reminded me of a piece
of blotting-paper.

The Spanish and French have left behind them memorials in
the beauty of their names. All the cities that have beautiful names
derive them from the Spanish or the French. The English people
give intensely ugly names to places. One place had such an ugly
name that I refused to lecture there. It was called Grigsville.
Supposing I had founded a school of Art there—fancy ‘Early
Grigsville*. Imagine a School of Art teaching ‘Grigsville

As for slang I did not hear much of it, though a young lady
who had changed her clothes after an afternoon dance did say
that ‘after the heel kick she had shifted her day goods*.
American youths are pale and precocious, or sallow and
supercilious, but American girls are pretty and charming— little
oases of pretty unreasonableness in a vast desert of practical

Every American girl is entitled to have twelve young men
devoted to her. They remain her slaves and she rules them with
charming nonchalance.

In going to America one learns that poverty is not a necessary
accompaniment to civilization. There at any rate is a country that
has no trappings, no pageants and no gorgeous ceremonies. I saw
only two processions—one was the Fire Brigade preceded by the
Police, the other was the Police preceded by the Fire Brigade.

 More owsoa here
 John Coulthart here
 photograph byPhyllis Galembo, Affianwan, Calabar South, Nigeria, 2005. Ilfochrome


  1. G...I had never read this before. Thanks for sharing it. I have slept in the bedroom where Wilde died, in debt, in Paris. Le Hotel, 13 rue de Beaux Arts They still have his last bill...unpaid. Have a wonderfull weekend...k

  2. "Please do not shoot the pianist"? I laughed out loud. Thank you for this. It's exquisite.

  3. Love this perspective on American life, especially the tale Venus de Milo arriving without arms. Have a great week-end. Mary

  4. "There is not so much beauty to be found in American cities as in Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury or Winchester, where are lovely
    relics of a beautiful age; but still there is a good deal of beauty to be seen in them now and then.

    But only where the American has not attempted to create it. Where the Americans have attempted to produce beauty they have signally failed. A remarkable characteristic of the Americans is the manner in which they have
    applied science to modern life."

    Hmm this quote started off in a way that many outsiders could relate to. That wherever a visitor comes from (be it Oxford, Paris, Venice), it is always older and more elegant than a New World country.

    But with the exception of San Francisco, which was acknowledged as being a really beautiful city, the rest was younger, brasher, louder, more scientific and less beautiful. Younger societies DO indeed do things differently! Even in 1882 it was nonsense to say that "where the Americans have attempted to produce beauty they have signally failed".

  5. This was such a delightful read...and If I wasn't so very tired at the moment I'd have a much more appropriate comment worthy of Oscar and yourself...but I'll have to revisit in the morning and try again. His thoughts on art & science were so wonderful to read.
    "All art depends upon exquisite and delicate sensibility"...what a lovely thing to read right before bed.
    Loved this...
    xo J~

  6. Fantastic read. Suzanne from Sydney

  7. Thank you for publishing this now. I've always loved it and it reminds me of some things that seem more than "half-past" at the moment -- like everybody being in a hurry to catch a train (which might be extended, by implication, by substituting "to go to the moon" for "catching a train"). The sense of America's energy that Wilde noticed and admired, emanating from our more open (compared to Wilde's Britain) form of society and the possibilities of social mobility, seems to be completely in eclipse at the moment and replaced by more passive possibilities that allow one simply to publish contempt for others in a few short (possibly, but not always, spell-checked) keystrokes. I love how Wilde describes "the inordinate size of everything". Obviously, that has positive and negative dimensions. If you take a look at contemporary Philadelphia, where they've transformed an old, originally European-style city into the ugliest place on earth, it makes you sad. However, if you visit the Zocalo in Mexico City and see Old World grandeur recreated in New World dimensions, it's difficult to imagine that Wilde wouldn't have been impressed,approved and enjoyed some memorable evenings out on the town. Curtis



Related Posts with Thumbnails