On January 18, 1882, while on a successful speaking tour of the United States, the 27-year-old Irish playwright, Oscar Wilde, newly famous at home and abroad, visits 62-year-old poet Walt Whitman at Whitman’s home in Camden, New Jersey at 431 Stevens Street, a building that no longer exists.
Wilde’s mother had purchased a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in 1866 and had read passages to Oscar when he was a child. It is not surprising, therefore, that Wilde seeks out Whitman when he has the opportunity to visit the United States. Wilde, through his friend and publisher in Philadelphia, J.M. Stoddart, requests that Whitman meet them for dinner in Philadelphia on the afternoon of Saturday, January 14. The ailing Whitman is not well enough to make the crossing of the Delaware River to Philadelphia. The meeting is then arranged to take place at Whitman’s home.
On Wednesday, January 18, after giving his lecture in Philadelphia the previous evening, Wilde travels by ferryboat across the river to visit Whitman. The two poets spend two hours together in a pleasant discussion over wine and milk punch.
Wilde is known to speak publicly about their meeting only once, in an interview with the Boston Herald about ten days after the meeting. He says, “I spent the most charming day I have spent in America. He is the grandest man I have ever seen. The simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age, and is not peculiar to any one people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times. Probably he is dreadfully misunderstood.”
Wilde and Whitman meet for a second time in early May. Due to so little being known about the visits, some biographers incorrectly speculate that the two poets are estranged. However, Whitman sends Wilde an inscribed copy of November Boughs in 1888. This is sold a decade later when Wilde’s library is liquidated for debts while he is in prison after being found guilty of “gross indecency with men.”
Whitman always defends Wilde against the accusations of his detractors. “Wilde was very friendly to me – was and is, I think – both Oscar and his mother – Lady Wilde – and thanks be most to the mother, that greater, and more important individual. Oscar was here – came to see me – and he impressed me a strong, able fellow, too.”