January 03, 2013

“I have nothing to declare except my genius” – the famous Oscar Wilde quote Oscar probably didn’t say…


On January 3, 1882, the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde disembarked from the ship that brought him from England to New York.

It was the beginning of what would be a high-profile, 11-month-long speaking tour of America and Canada.

As noted by the definitive website about that tour, Oscar Wilde in America, the ship arrived in port the night before but was held in quarantine until the next morning.

That’s apparently why the date some sources attach to a famous quotation attributed to Wilde is January 2, 1882.

In point of fact it was the morning of January 3rd when Wilde left the ship and went to the New York Customs House, where government agents asked their standard question: Do you have anything to declare?

Wilde supposedly answered: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.”

This quip is cited by thousands of books of quotations and websites. Indeed, it’s one of the best known of Wilde’s many witty quotes.

However, unlike those that come from Wilde’s plays and other writings, it’s not a line that can be verified as something he actually said.

In the new book Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America, historian Roy Morris, Jr. notes:

“No one actually heard him say it, but it sounded like something Wilde would have said, and by the time literary biographer Arthur Ransome quoted it first in his 1912 study of the author, the quip already had passed into legend.”

Arthur Ransome himself didn’t put the famed wisecrack in quotation marks in his book, Oscar Wilde, a Critical Study. He simply alluded to it, writing that one of the famous things Wilde did in America was “to tell the Customs Officials that he had nothing to declare but his genius.”

The first known appearance of the witticism as an actual quote, with quotation marks, is in the biography Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, published in 1916.

That’s the source cited by most books of quotations that actually provide a source, instead of simply listing the quote as “attributed.”

Harris wrote in his book about Wilde:

“His phrase to the Revenue officers on landing: ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius,’ turned the limelight full upon him and excited comment and discussion all over the country.”

However, there’s no known reference to the legendary quote in any of the many newspaper articles written about Wilde during his North American tour.

Thus, the claim that it played a key role in focusing attention on Wilde during the tour seems to have been made up by Harris.

And, it appears likely that the quote itself was made up after Wilde died in 1900.

The most in-depth source of information on this question is probably the Oscar Wilde in America website. It’s maintained by John Cooper, an amazingly knowledgeable Wilde aficionado from England who now lives in the US.

On his web page about the quote, Cooper notes that Ransome and Harris both wrote their biographies of Wilde more than a decade after his death.

There is no known record of the quote in anything written while Wilde was still alive.

Based on his extensive research, Cooper classifies “I have nothing to declare except my genius” as a “dubious quotation.”

His Oscar Wilde in America site also provides the background on a number of verified quotations that Wilde made during his North American tour and, later, about Americans.

Many are quite funny.

But none are quite as famous as Wilde’s alleged declaration of his genius — about which the one certain thing is that it is linked to his arrival at the Customs House in New York in January of 1882.

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