In what must be one of the more improbable encounters in history, Oscar Wilde, a giant, tragic figure, paid a visit to Jefferson Davis, the towering icon of another, greater tragedy, at Beauvoir.
This account of the meeting is from Hudson Strode’s Jefferson Davis: Tragic Hero, the Last Twenty-Five Years. The final passage is from a letter Wilde wrote a week later.
Through the winter and spring of 1882, Mrs. Davis had been reading accounts of the sensationally successful lecture tour of an eccentric young British poet named Oscar Wilde. When she learned that he was to deliver a lecture in Memphis on June 12, she regretted that it would be inconvenient for her to visit the Hayses (friends in Memphis) at that time. But Maggie Hays sent her a copy of a thin paper called Meriwether’s Weekly, dated June 17, 1882, which further excited her interest. Lee Meriwether had had an interview with Wilde in his suite at Gaston’s hotel in Memphis. His older brother Avery had said to him, “Wilde wears knee breeches and keeps a sunflower pinned to the lapel of his coat, but there’s more to him than that. Go and interview him.”
Meriwether found Wilde’s sitting room “in disorder, with magazines and photographs strewn on the floor, and on the table were the two volumes of Jefferson Davis’s Rise and Fall published the year before.” Meriwether told Wilde that he had been Mr. Davis’ neighbor in Memphis and during his childhood had known him well. “Jefferson Davis is the man I would like most to see in the United States,” Wilde said, and declared that it was remarkable that it took Northern armies numbering three million soldiers four years to whip him.” He asked where Davis lived now. Lee told him on the Gulf Coast about four hundred roundabout miles from Memphis. “That’s a long way to go to meet anyone,” said the poet-lecturer, “but not too far to go to see such a man as Jefferson Davis”
Wilde’s manager, however, had already secured an engagement in New Orleans and he arranged one in Mobile two days later. In time, Wilde wrote the ex-President a “most winning” letter, asking to be allowed to stop at Beauvoir and pay homage. Mrs. Davis urged her husband to invite him to stay the night. Davis was reluctant; he could not help but conclude that, despite his tremendous successes on the lecture platform, Wilde with his knee breeches and sunflower was a bit silly. At best, Davis did not care much for worldly people, not did he fancy people for their fame.
In the Mobile Register of June 23 Davis read an announcement that had undoubtedly been inspired by Wilde’s manager. “We understand that ex-President Davis has invited Mr. Wilde to pay him a visit at Beauvoir, his Mississippi home; and that the aesthete has accepted … It is scarcely conceivable that two persons can be more different than the ex-President of the Confederacy and the “Apostle of Aestheticism,” as known to report; and we confess sufficient curiosity to desire to know the bent of their coming, protracted interview.”
Wilde was reported by the New Orleans Picayune to have “very sensible views about the Southern Confederacy.” In an interview he spoke of his great admiration for the ex-President. He had never spoken to the Chief, he said, but had followed his career with much attention. “His fall after such an able and gallant pleading in his own cause, must necessarily arouse sympathy.” The cause of the South in the late war Wilde compared to that of contemporary Ireland. “It was a struggle for autonomy, self-government, for a people. I do not wish to see the Empire dismembered, but only to see the Irish people free. People must have freedom and autonomy before they are capable of their greatest result in the cause of progress. I look forward to meeting Mr. Jefferson Davis.”
But it is doubtful if Wilde got as much pleasure as he expected in the meeting, which took place on June 27. Though Mrs. Davis and Winnie and a visiting cousin, Mary Davis, found Wilde enchanting as a conversationalist, Mr. Davis felt something indefinablly objectionable in his personality. Even at twenty-six (Davis had turned seventy-four on June 3), Wilde’s thick, sensual lips gave him a slightly gross look. At dinner Davis let his wife and Wilde carry on most of the conversation; he remained courteous, but aloof. Pleading doctor’s orders for some temporary indisposition, Davis excused himself early. Wilde had felt restrained in the presence of this sincere man. By simply being himself, Davis had held up to Wilde a mirror which reflected an image that was not flattering.
After his host had retired, Wilde brightened perceptibly and charmed the three ladies beyond words. Mrs. Davis made a very good pencil sketch of the poet while he chatted. And he presented her with a copy of a recently published English edition of his poems and inscribed it glowingly. The four talked until after midnight. When Mary Davis, who was to grow into a proper spinster, had undressed for bed, she went to the window and stared out enraptured. There on the beach in the moonlight she beheld the tall figure of Oscar Wilde sauntering up and down the sand with a handful of pebbles, which he moodily tossed, one by one, into the shallow waves. (Mary Davis, though terribly shocked over Wilde’s subsequent tragedy, admitted later that she was “never mentally free of the man’s charm.”)
Wilde had charmed most of America, but not his American hero. After the Britisher had departed the next day, Mrs. Davis chided her husband for not being more cordial to their celebrated guest. He only said quietly, “I did not like the man,” and would give no reason. When he went out to his pavilion office, Davis found propped up on his desk a 12×10 photograph of the lecturer-poet. It was inscribed “To Jefferson Davis in all loyal admiration from Oscar Wilde, June—’82—Beauvoir.”
In a letter written on July 6, 1882 to Julia Ward Howe (American author and reformer (1819-1910, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”), Wilde wrote:
“I write to you from the beautiful, passionate, ruined South, the land of magnolias and music, of roses and romance: picturesque too in her failure to keep pace with your keen northern pushing intellect; living chiefly on credit, and in the memory of some crushing defeats. And I have been to Texas, right to the heart of it, and stayed with Jeff Davis at his plantation (how fascinating all failures are!) [my italics: jly] and seen Savannah, and the Georgia forests, and bathed in the Gulf, and engaged in Voodoo rites with the Negroes, and am dreadfully tired and longing for an idle day …”