I was not the only Irishman on the SS Arizona, as we moored outside New York harbor, but I certainly wore the finest ankle-length otter-lined overcoat.
When we were advised that our ship could not dock until the next morning, I remarked to the captain that the Americans would be crestfallen at having to spend another night without their apostle of Aestheticism. He muttered some nautical expression under his breath.
A party of yellow journalists were hungry enough for epigrams that they chartered a launch and came on board to ask me questions, along with medical officers to clear us from quarantine. The journalists wore dreadful hats that reminded me of chimney pots. â€œI hope my arrival on these shores will be the beginning of a great movement here,â€ I told them.
Impudent questions followed, such as whether it was true that I had my bathwater colored with triple essence of verbena. I was already making a sensation.
The next day, as we proceeded to our berth in the North River, our ship got stuck in the mud. More journalists came aboard. One wished to know what I thought of the Atlantic. â€œA disappointment,â€ I said. â€œThe roaring ocean does not roar.â€
WILDE UNIMPRESSED BY ATLANTIC, would be the headline.
My purpose here, I explained, while sailors scrambled in the rigging, and foghorns sounded plangently, was to assert the primacy of Art over life.
â€œAre you here to beautify America, Mr. Wilde?â€
â€œBeauty is all around us,â€ I observed, gesturing helpfully. â€œMan is hungry for beauty. All we want is a systematic way of bringing it out.â€
â€œThat grain elevator over there, in Hoboken,â€ a reporter said, â€œdoes even that have aesthetic value?â€
Flicking dust off my lavender kid gloves, I responded that I was too near-sighted to perceive the item in question.
Once we landed, my luggage was retrieved from the bowels of the ship before anyone else’s, and I was swept off to the waterfront Customs House, a makeshift shed surrounded by coops of truculent geese. Inside the shed, a grizzled, red-nosed individual inspected my trunks full of lilac Hungarian smoking jackets and pantaloons of fawn-covered velvet. The old man asked me meekly whether my trunks contained any prohibited imports, such as animal hides, obscene materials, or Oriental carpets. Americans are infinitely curious about trivial matters.
â€œI have nothing to declare but my genius,â€ I clarified.
The inspector wore a horrific beard and a jacket of an unsightly blue, none too recently washed and studded with brass buttons. â€œI talked to the captain of the Arizona,â€ he said, sifting through some first editions of Poems I had brought as gifts for celebrated literati. â€œHe said he should have had ye lashed to the ship’s bowsprit on the windward side.â€
On his lapel, my enigmatic interlocutor wore a tin badge bearing a name I suddenly recognized.
He’d attained some notoriety as an author of sea-going yarns, before Victoria’s accession. It came to me I’d even read a book of his once, on a winter’s afternoon in Merrion Square.
This was Herman Melville, author of Typee. Had he really bedded with cannibals? â€œI thought you were dead,â€ I exclaimed.
Melville shook his head. â€œI walk uptown to the docks six days a week,â€ he said. â€œI examine ships’ cargoes and passengers’ baggage. They pay me three dollars and sixty cents a day.â€
The ennui of such a life! Better by far he’d remained in the South Seas, in a tropical grove with dusky natives.
â€œThey try to get me to take bribes,â€ he said, shifting back and forth on his feet, scrutinizing my cigars to make sure they had been correctly packaged. â€œMoney is thrust into my pockets behind my back. I always return it.â€
Prising open the valise containing my letters of introduction to important American writers, Melville regarded me with an expression so changeful, I felt he was looking through me, at happier vistas from long ago. How had he come to this? Had he failed to cultivate the right people? It was certainly hard to see this spent and sunstruck seafarer as a figure in society, even New York society.
One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.
â€œAll manner of men are discharged in this port,â€ Melville told me, â€œphilosophers and footpads, apes and angels, speculators and parlor men.â€ He fingered my silk leggings with his gnarled hands. â€œThen beware lest if you go out of your way to be seen, you may also be seen through.”
Was it, by some Puritan tradition, his appointed task to examine not only my luggage but my soul also? The state of a man’s soul is perhaps better revealed by his choice of cravats than of convictions.
I inquired whether anything was amiss. Melville started filling in a form in large block letters. â€œMy concern is with those who carry more than they claim to,â€ he said, â€œwhile you are as yet a ship with an empty hold, blown you know not where. On the surface, a crust of evanescent light,â€ he murmured. â€œBelow, blackness. Man’s instinct is always to seek the darker realms. Yet what we seek in the depths is what is most likely to destroy us.â€
Before we parted, he handed me a long, privately-printed poem about a religious crisis of some description, inscribing it to me, Tell Truth, & shame the Devel. I would like to say that I later read this work, but I was presented with many poems on my travels, eccentrically-spelled verse histories of the Civil War and so forth, and soon acquired the habit of flinging them from the windows of railway carriages to divert the buffalo. For myself, I presented the customs officer with a free copy of my own collection which I inscribed l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake, a principle in which I found I had just ceased to place any faith, rather distressingly since it was the underlying premise of my impending lecture tour. But how dull life would be if we never said things we disbelieved.
The gesture with which Melville bade me farewell made him seem almost phantasmal, so that I left the shed with a superstitious feeling of horror, as if I’d glimpsed my own reflection in a dream-mirror. This man had witnessed mutinies and shipwrecks, but perhaps nothing more terrible than the general indifference that now confronted him.
Outside the customs shed, rats made forays among heaps of refuse. The retired Colonel who was managing my tour handed me some lillies and ushered me into a buggy, my portmanteaux were loaded onto other vehicles, and as we traversed the Manhattan streets, our weary horse up to its fetlocks in mud, a pack of quite charming urchins fell in behind us, chasing us past jobbers’ warehouses, imitating what they supposed to be my gait and laughing adorably. Vagabonds washed themselves at hydrants. I placed a cigarette in my mouth without lighting it.
That year I would traverse vast immensities to visit such exquisite places as New Orleans and San Francisco and transform them forever, by teaching their inhabitants that it is through means of the most evanescent things — art, conversation, fashion, reputation â€“ that we may best perceive the eternal and the essential. Yet for now my colloquy with the ancient customs inspector had left me feeling out of sorts. Could it be that whoever drinks deeply enough from the chalice of the sublime is eventually compelled to drain also the flagons of failure, disgrace, humiliation, sorrow, and despair? I could not in those days have imagined ever coming to regret being the center of attention, nor was I yet ready to admit anything harsh or disturbing to the sacred precincts of Art, but as I lit my cigarette, surrounded by the hysteria-edged adulation of the crowd, I could finally admit that those Atlantic storms had scared the bejesus out of me.
James Warner’s writing has appeared in Eclectica, Pindeldyboz, Eyeshot, Monkey Bicycle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. He lives in San Francisco. His web site is www.jameswarner.net.