The Modern Messiah

wasp

A cartoon printed in the satirical magazine The Wasp to mark Oscar Wilde’s arrival in San Francisco.

When Wilde arrived in San Francisco he was greeted by thousands of people curious to see him.

This cartoon, entitled “The Modern Messiah,” which appeared in The Wasp on the eve of Oscar Wilde’s third lecture in San Francisco [1],  shows such a crowd, but in satirical style.

Heavily featured are sunflowers, one of the floral emblems of the aesthetic movement; another, calla lilies, known to decorate Wilde’s table at dinners in America, serve as the donkey’s ears. Also depicted in the scene are caricatured personalties resonant of Wilde’s visit, some of whom were thought responsible for bringing Wilde to San Francisco, and therefore supportive of him.

Oscar Wilde

Shown arriving in messianic style. Compare:

“… your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

The modern messiah, however, bears a sunflower emblazoned with a dollar sign which reflects the accusation that his motivations were as pecuniary as they were missionary.

The Donkey

Braying, and with sunflower saddle and lily ears, we are reminded of the epithet “ass-thete” that accompanied Wilde across America, but here the donkey symbolizes his visit to San Francisco: attached to the tail is the $5,000 that Wilde was reportedly paid for his series of lectures in California; around the neck, padlocked to the conveyance, is an image of Wilde’s California promoter Charles E. Locke. The words on the padlock are “Bush St. Theatre”, where Locke was manager. Also, at Bush and Montgomery Streets was Platt’s Hall where Wilde lectured four times.

donkeys-ears

Man With the Goatee Beard

goateeCharles Crocker (1822—1888) railroad executive who founded the Central Pacific Railroad that took Wilde on his journey to California.

Man With White Hair

bierceSkulking somewhat appropriately behind proceedings is Ambrose Bierce (1842—c. 1914), who penned a relentless attack on Wilde in The Wasp, March 31, 1882, the text of which can be found at Wilde’s lecture on April 1.

Man at Far Left With Beard

isaacIsaac Smith Kalloch (1832—1887) 18th Mayor of San Francisco serving from December 1, 1879 to December 4, 1881.

Man With Long White Beard (behind sunflower back left)

beardMaurice Carey Blake (1815—1897) 19th Mayor of San Francisco, serving from December 5, 1881 to January 7, 1883.

Short Man With Moustache

danny-boyDaniel O’Connell (1849—1899) poet, actor, writer, journalist, and the grand-nephew of Daniel O’Connell (1775—1847), the famed Irish orator and politician.

O’Connell was co-founder of the Bohemian Club where Wilde was feted and had his portrait painted. The painting of Wilde hung in the club until it was lost in the fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Man With Broken Sunflower

Possibly impresario Tom Maguire.

aesthetic-fan

Boys in the Foreground

Newspaper sellers, one carrying The Wasp in which the cartoon appeared [1].

Chinese in the Background

While in San Francisco Wilde famously visited Chinatown and expressed his admiration of their decorative arts, such as delicate tea cups.


[1] The Wasp, March 31, 1882 (G.F. Keller)

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

6 thoughts on “The Modern Messiah”

  1. Thanks, David. I got my lead from Robert D. Pepper’s excellent “Oscar Wilde, Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century’ (Book Club of California, 1972) which features a fold-out of the color original of the cartoon and some notes. Although this needed some correction and further research it doesn’t seem like work!

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