Kentucky’s Oscar Wilde


George Douglass Sherley & James Whitcomb Riley

I wonder what my writer-father Jack Wild would have thought about my mother having a cousin who was hailed as “Kentucky’s Oscar Wilde”? Daddy was a good journalist, but he never had a book published. And some of the others I have told you about were entertainers, but they never went on tour with Mark Twain and James Whitcomb Riley. George Douglass Sherley, my third cousin three times removed, did both.

Douglass, as he was called, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on June 27, 1857.  His father was a well known and very wealthy steamboat captain, who will be the subject of another blog some day. His mother, Susan Cromwell Sherley, was the apple of his eye; some people might say he was a “mama’s boy,” but that’s not how he was described in the newspapers of the day — “a man of genius,” “the handsome and chivalrous millionaire,” “one of the most popular men of Louisville,” “a man of fine presence, much magnetism, and brilliant powers” . . . that’s how they described him.

Douglass attended Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and studied law at the University of Virginia.  A life-long bachelor, while a resident of Louisville he lived at Sherley Place, 300 West Chestnut, with his mother and three servants. Douglass being a gentleman with a creative bent and full coffers, in addition to his literary creations also imagined into reality some architectural gems. One of them was covered in detail, with photos, in the Winter 2013 issue of Preservation Matters, a publication of the Bluegrass Trust. You can read it here beginning on page 12.

According to Wikipedia, Douglass worked as a journalist for the Louisville Courier-Journal, “beginning in the 1870s despite his millionaire status.” If that is true, I suspect it was to report the society news. Douglass himself  was certainly mentioned often enough over the decades, and it is primarily from newspaper reports that we come to know about him. For example, from the Saint Paul Globe of June 1, 1891, reporting from Louisville:

James B. Heth, of Chicago, and G. Douglass Sherley, of this city, between whom a sensational personal encounter occurred last Monday, and who have been talking of a duel ever since, have finally been persuaded not to shed each other’s gore. Mr. Heth was recently informed that certain remarks supposed to reflect on a lady of his acquaintance had been made by Mr. Sherley, and thereupon sought that gentleman at his home, and, as the story goes, attempted to strike him when he opened the door. When Sherley recovered from his astonishment he tossed Heth into the street, and subsequently demanded an explanation and apology, intimating that his hot Southern blood boiled, and that he would be pleased to carve or shoot Mr. Heth at the latter’s earliest convenience. Henry Watterson [Editor of the Courier-Journal] and Dr. D.W. Yandell [founder of the University of Louisville medical department], acting for Mr. Sherley, and Messrs. W.P. Johnson and John W. Green, acting for Mr. Heth, then took the affair in hand with the above result.

And from the Louisville Courier-Journal, May 17, 1896:

The past week has been one of the gayest of the gay for those who have attended the races. It has been a succession of dinners, luncheons and impromptu occasions such as have not been experienced in recent years. On Clark Day Mr. and Mrs. W. F. Schulte gave a coaching party to Miss Walsh, of St. Louis. In the party were . . . Douglass Sherley . . . After the face the party took luncheon in an improvised room at the grand stand. All were then invited by Col. M. Lewis Clark to the club-house at the Downs. There they drank from the silver loving cup that had recently been presented Col. Clark. The party from there went to dinner at the Pendennis Club as guests of Mr. Douglass Sherley. The decorations were white and pink peonies. Mr. Douglass Sherley gave a coaching party on Schulte Day, followed by a dinner . . . .

Sherley privately published four short books and other occasional pieces, joining a tour with popular American writer James Whitcomb Riley, which greatly enhanced his reputation. They began on April 11, 1893, in Louisville, and ended March 3, 1894, in New York City, where they shared a stage at Madison Square Garden with Mark Twain.

From the Chicago Inter Ocean, 4 Dec 1893:

Should any stranger from the effete East, under the impression that the only American literature we have is born in New York and fostered in Boston, walk into Central Music Hall either tomorrow or Thursday evening how quickly he will come to the conclusion that literature is thriving nearly a thousand miles west of the Atlantic Ocean. How quickly that stranger will realize that the East has cause to look to the setting sun for the glow of American poetry and the charm of American humor.

For tomorrow evening at Central Music Hall there will be something akin to an authors’ symposium. Four gifted writers, hailing from as many different States, will then and there read from their own writings and give a new illustration of the literary splendor of the West. . . . James Whitcomb Riley, from Indiana, will recite his quaint verses and tell his homely stories of Hoosier life. Opie Read will tell his tales of simple character and dainty humor, bringing with him the flavor of Arkansas; Elwyn A. Barron will represent the poetry of the South and recall to mind that he is a son of Tennessee, and Douglass Sherley, from good old Kentucky, will uncork the bottle of his memory and pour into the glass of entertainment a few of his oddly humorous stories. . . . Douglass Sherley, one of the most popular men of Louisville, is a stranger to the local platform, but he has hosts of friends here, who during The Fair surrounded him constantly and listened to his tales of adventure and his yarns about Kentucky, in which there was ever a mixture of the fanciful and the humorous. A man of fine presence, much magnetism, and brilliant powers, he is sure to win popular approval upon his first appearance.

And from The Wilmington, NC Weekly Star, 8 Dec 1893 (reprinted from the Indianapolis Journal):

Kentucky’s Oscar Wilde

Douglass Sherley is doubtless, in a literary way, the most conspicuous person in Louisville. He is notable also in many other ways. At first glance he is seen to be what is styled a “character.” Being fond of character study himself, he would no doubt generously recognize his own claim to the classification. He is a large, well built, squarely adjusted man, with a massive head and neck, dark hair, an intelligent brown, suggestive of femininity in a way, keen and kindly eyes, a large brown mustache, worn in curly ends like the “beau catchers” of the traditional stage spinster, a pleasant, sensitive mouth, with the air of a man of the world, but withal a clean, temperate, perfectly correct man of the world

He has a droll habit of holding his head on one side and looking aslant through his eyeglasses, which gives him a unique expression, and without which and the flowers in his lapel, almost always a red rose, he would hardly be Douglass Sherley, Mr. Sherley is popular among the men, and also much liked by the women, his literary work being more generally appreciated by the latter. There is a fine, feminine, but not unmanly, quality in his writings, which  really only women, or men with a like feminine streak, can interpret and enjoy.

I will admit that I have not read all of my cousin’s books. But he wrote the following upon the occasion of the death of his friend James Whitcomb Riley, and I do like it quite a lot.

Excerpt from The Spray of Kentucky Pine by George Douglass Sherley:

A SPRAY OF KENTUCKY PINE–Placed At The Feet Of The Dead Poet– –James Whitcomb Riley– By The Hand Of the Man From Down On The Farm– –George Douglass Sherley –On The Banks Of Wolf Run– –1916–

O! James Whitcomb Riley!

This Man From Down On The Farm — one-while

your constant Companion, in work

most Congenial, all-while your Faithful Friend — rejoices.

and is exceeding Glad, That All Is Well With You!

For no one knew, better than you,

the Wisdom, the Beauty, of Death!

No one the more fully realized

the Folly, the Futility, of human Grief!

You firmly believed, that he, who follows The Christ;

that he, who, in all Humility, bears the Cross; that

he, who, in all Gratitude, wears upon his unworthy brow,

the imprint of the Kiss Divine! –the Kiss of Forgiveness

Complete — you firmly believed, that he ought to be

brave enough, strong enough, to meet the Call,

whensoever, wheresoever, it may chance to come.

You firmly believed that the Call always

comes at the Right Moment: that Incompletion

Here, finds its Completement There: that every

human Life holds — like the Palace of Aladdin —

its unfinished Window: that the finite mind,

hampered by its mortality, is a clog to any

Completion, to any Earthly Perfection.

Therefore, feeling, believing, as you did Here,

now knowing, as you must “know” There,

this Man rejoices, and is exceeding Glad,

That All Is Well With You!

Douglass and his mother are buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville. His cross-shaped gravestone which lies flat on the ground, is engraved with the words “Whatever is, is best,” a line from the poet Ella Wilcox Wheeler, another contemporary of Kentucky’s Oscar Wilde.

4 thoughts on “Kentucky’s Oscar Wilde

  1. I’m sure this must be a joke.
    I’m researching Edgar Allan Poe. And you say your man, George Gouglass Sherley was a fried of Poe…how can this be.
    Poe died October 3, 1849. Your Sherley was born June 1857.

    They never met!


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