First encounters: When Oscar Wilde met Walt Whitman

An improbable meeting perhaps, but it did occur. The second in our weekly series, drawn by the distinguished American illustrator George Sorel and researched and written by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. Last week, Marlene Dietrich and Alexander Fleming; next week, Maya Angelou and Billie Holiday
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Wrapped in his fur-trimmed green greatcoat, the young poet Oscar Wilde arrived in America for a lecture tour in January 1882. He came as the exponent of aestheticism to a puritanical and often hostile people. But cosmopolitan New York lionized him, and the press loved him: his flamboyance was good copy. In Philadelphia, his second stop, he mentioned that he did "so hope to meet Mr Whitman". A card promptly arrived: "Walt Whitman will be in from 2 till 312 this afternoon."

Whitman lived very simply in nearby Camden with his brother and sister- in-law. Like Wilde, he was tall and solidly built, but his rough homespun suit and open shirt were in sharp contrast to his visitor's sartorial elegance. "I come as a poet to call upon a poet," Wilde intoned in greeting. He then described how his mother had read Leaves of Grass aloud to him as a child. Pleased, Whitman produced a bottle of his sister-in-law's elderberry wine and invited his guest to help consume it. "I will call you Oscar," he said.

The bottle emptied, they adjourned to the den - to be on "thee and thou terms," as Whitman put it. Wilde asked about his theory of composition. He had once been a typesetter, Whitman explained, and aimed at making his verse "look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone." But to advocate beauty and charm over substance, as in Wilde's aestheticism - that was going too far. "Why, Oscar," Whitman objected, "it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty by itself is in a bad way."

To Whitman, however, Wilde was never such a fellow. With him Wilde had dropped his affectations and found no occasion for his famed barbed wit; his Oscar was always "a fine large handsome youngster". As for Wilde, he remembered that afternoon in terms of fresh air and sunlight, and when a friend, knowing his tastes, remarked that the elderberry wine must have been difficult to get down, he replied, "If it had been vinegar, I should have drunk it all the same."

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