Some of the best observations of the American psyche have come from our European visitors in the past such as Alexi de Tocqueville, Francis Lieber, James Bryce and Charles Dickens. Since the 19th century the observations have shifted little in the measurement of our behaviors.
Two years ago, I was surprised to learn that Irish poet and play write Oscar Wilde had visited my favorite city in the world Leadville, Colorado. I always think of Wilde launching from Dublin, imprisoned in England, or dying in Paris. I was taken to think that he and I in our own times had drank beer and looked upon Mount Massive with awe. However, him dressed in a greenish-brown smoking jacket and me in a North Face.
Wilde went on an art lecture tour of America which included the northeast, California, the vast west, Texas and the deep south in 1882. He would later give lectures in England on his time and observations in the United States. His lectures were saved in “Impressions of America”.
The short lecture is worth your time and incredibly entertaining. A read of it and you’ll agree little has changed.
He begins with what remains true with our Docker pants and untucked shirts when he said, “Americans are not the most well-dressed people in the world, they are the most comfortably dressed.”
Our busyness has been a part of our behavior since de Tocqueville visited and Wilde also observed this in New York, “The next thing, particularly noticeably is that everybody seems in a hurry to catch a train. This is a state of things which is not favorable to poetry and romance.”
He would place this American hurriedness as the impediment to good art in the U.S. saying if Shakespeare had lived in such a place he,” could not have given us those lovely balcony scenes which are so full of poetry and pathos.”
How true we seldom are still or quiet enough to create, let alone contemplate. “All art depends upon exquisite and delicate sensibilities, and such continual turmoil must ultimately be destructive of the musical faculty.” We are reminded that our busyness hampers our creative genes.
As with other observers, Wilde is impressed if not with the beauty of our country the ingenuity of its people. “In America an inventor is honored. A remarkable characteristic of the Americans is the manner in which they have applied science to modern life.” Even today our heroes are Jobs, Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. We have strayed little from our tech driven personality.
When it comes to the beauty of our country Wilde and I agree, “Perhaps the most beautiful part of America is the West.” He noted while in the West he was never greeted as a stranger despite what he had heard.
While out West he visited Leadville, Colorado where he stated, “I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was a printed notice – PLEASE DO NOT SHOOT THE PIANIST. HE IS DOING HIS BEST.”
I encourage you to read the short lecture from Wilde. It will remind you of the great gifts of our society and the attitudes that still need attention today.
Wilde concludes, “It is well worth one’s while to go to a country which can teach us the beauty of the word Freedom and the value of the thing Liberty.”