Last week I gave a talk on the subject of Oscar Wilde and the sunflower to the good people of the Maryland Agriculture Resource Council at their Sunflower Soirée, a yearly festival devoted to the Helianthus annuus. Literally, an annual event.
Secretly, it was a wonderful occasion. But there was a gloomy weather forecast which was the portent to a poignant moment.
Dark clouds at outdoor events have a tendency to shrink both audiences and sunflowers alike. Consequently, I found myself addressing three rows of cautious faces amid three acres of bowed heads. “They looked better last week”, my host reassured me, probably referring to the flowers. But drooping heads or not, I was undeterred.
Oscar and sunflowers are a valid conjunction because perhaps no figure in history has been associated with a single flower as closely as Oscar Wilde was associated with the sunflower in 1882, when he visited that flower’s native America for the entire year.
I spoke of helios and anthos, of motifs and movements, and love sick maidens. Of nymphs in Greece, Vincent Van Gogh and delicate exotic seeds when the bloom is gone. The talk was well received.
Green salad and bluesy jazz followed the purple prose and, in defiance of a sunless sky, my illustrations and the wine provided a hint of yellow. The conversation was also colorful over by the sunflower fields, where I recalled Oscar’s similar traveling experience in Kansas. For it was there that, he too, had met with foul weather and meager audiences, and after all, Kansas is the Sunflower State.
Oscar Wilde’s Reception in Kansas
One might have thought that the shared symbolism of the sunflower would have made Kansans sympathetic to the aesthetic. But Oscar’s oeuvre was to prove problematic, not emblematic.
In Leavenworth his visit began badly when he was accosted by a drunk for the amusement of a crowd at the Union Depot. Later, at the Opera House, the press described how he had “lectured to and bored” a “small and uninterested” audience.
In Topeka he addressed the empty benches of a “fifty dollar house,” which would indicate fewer than a hundred people.
It was then that the weather turned foul, and in Lawrence “the state of the atmosphere…kept many away from his lecture.”
The clouds followed him to Atchison as the Daily Champion reported, “It rained; the streets were full of yellow mud; White Clay [a local creek] rolled a torrent of murky water; everything was sulky and dirty” and an audience of only thirty, “braved the darkness and the storm” to attend Wilde’s lecture, although the Globe was generous enough to inflate that number to forty-three—if one included the door-tenders, the ushers, the man who was snoring, and the janitor.
It was also reported that the lecture of the ass-thete had been advertised in the streets that morning by “a dilapidated little burro, [small donkey] wearing on either side a large placard, with the words ‘I lecture at Corinthian Hall to-night.'” Oscar was described as “disgusted” by his reception, and the local paper agreed there “was nothing beautiful” in Atchison for him.
Also in Atchison there appeared an admirable dose of Midwest common sense addressed to Oscar in an article  which was critical of his false manner and dress, as well as his poor diction. It also gave an honest appraisal of the merits or otherwise of his lecture and ended with some prescience:
“Mr Wilde should dress like a gentleman, cut his hair, learn to speak plain, stop calling everything ‘lovely’ and ‘joyous,’ or ‘stoopid’ and ‘dreadful’ and so convince the world of the existence of the good stuff there really is in him, buried beneath a heavy weight of idle affectation.”
All the while the foreboding sky
Meanwhile, back at the Sunflower Soirée lecture and subsequent chat, the only heavy weight was the night closing in, and, eventually, the people drifted away.
I found myself alone except for an undead sky and a generously unfinished carafe. But I had forgotten there can be an oppressive moment under the growing weight of the weather and the glowing warm of the wine, when a poetic soul may be prey to suggestion.
Thus I was drawn again to those darkening rows of sunflowers which, by now, were a haunting silhouette where a latter-day apostle of the sunflower might hear an echo of the cruelty to a kindred spirit. But I dared not dwell on what had passed in the Sunflower State. For this was a dangerously symbolic place where wilting blooms were a thousand Oscars and the swaying fields were a Birnam Wood.
So I left the worrisome weather to do the brooding unaccompanied, and pondered only a last regret for Oscar’s folly and his eventually fate, until, as Evelyn Waugh put it somewhere, the granite sky wept, and I knew it was time to go home.
 “Matters and Things” in The Atchison Daily Champion, April 23, 1882.
—The image at the top of this article was used as the cover of the book Declaring His Genius, Oscar Wilde In North America, by Roy Morris, Jr. For my review see here.
—The picture used in connection with the Kansas lectures is of Commercial Street, Atchison.
—Read the Kansas Historical Society publication Oscar Wilde In Kansas (1981) by Charles Harmon Cagle.