University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Rochester's Literary and Book Clubs, Their Origins, Programs, and Accomplishments

Volume XXXXI ·  1989-1990
Rochester's Literary and Book Clubs: Their Origins, Programs, and Accomplishments

One of my first discoveries as a student of Rochester's history was that next after a school and a church, the pioneer villages of the Genesee country almost without exception hastened to organize an association library. Books were cherished items in the carts of many migrating pioneers, and any journeyman printer with a hand press and a font of type was assured a welcome. Before the public library was organized in Rochester these association libraries and book clubs were the centers of literary discussion and study. The public library with its numerous branches has, since 1911, replaced the association libraries, but the book clubs have multiplied and diversified and continue to contribute to Rochester's intellectual life.

Rochester has had several specialized literary clubs, but its chief claim to distinction is the longevity of a few clubs that cultivated more diverse literary and intellectual interests. Two indeed have already celebrated their centennials, and two more are rapidly approaching that anniversary-a maturity that few if any clubs elsewhere have attained. Moreover, the minute books and other records, including historical summaries of the club programs, that these and a few other clubs have placed on deposit in the University and public libraries, provide abundant evidence of the intellectual fermentation that fructified some of Rochester's most prosaic developments.

Again, Rochester was not alone, nor the pioneer in the generation of intimate literary clubs. Professor Arthur May, who in November 1967 compiled a summary account of the first thirty years of the Philosophers' Club of Rochester, located a model predecessor in industrial Birmingham where the Lunar Society had initiated a pattern and a rhythm for nightly gatherings of a select group that included such giants as James Watt, Joseph Priestly, Erasmus Darwin, and John Baskerville the printer among a dozen other lovers of books. Since Professor May did not supply its date, I checked the excellent two-volume History of Birmingham (one of a half-dozen cities in the world that have published comprehensive historical accounts that rival those on Rochester). There we learn of the Lunar Society's origin in 1766 and its stimulating discussions continuing until the early 1800s when it was superseded by the larger Philosophical Society. There we also learn that "The inhabitants of Birmingham are fonder of associations in clubs than those of almost any other place. . . . Many of the clubs were friendly societies . . . but unfortunately nearly all of them met in public houses, so that much liquor was consumed" and many of the clubs were soon liquidated.

Professor May also found a predecessor for his club in Benjamin Franklin's Leather Apron Club, soon renamed the Junto, whose debates on morals, politics, and natural philosophy, as Franklin put it, "were to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth." Although the first Junto lapsed after a few years as its members became absorbed in the establishment and maintenance of a library, a Junto society was revived in the 1750s with a broader membership basis—a prototype for the philosophical societies that shortly appeared in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. The library society formed by the original Junto also had its offsprings in the library associations that sprang up in towns throughout the country in the postrevolutionary years.

Nineteenth-Century Clubs

There is no hint in the records that Lewis Henry Morgan, the prime mover in the establishment of Rochester's first literary club in 1854, had any knowledge of either the Junto or the Lunar Society. He had, however, benefited from the stimulation received from his associates in "The Grand Order of the Iroquois," a fraternity he had helped to organize among fellow students at Union College some fifteen years before. Its attempt to develop appropriate rituals had prompted him to undertake the first scientific study of that ancient tribe and had resulted in the publication of his first great book, The League of the Iroquois, in 1851. He was already pressing ahead with the study of the customs of other tribes, and the initiative he took in the establishment of "The Club" sprang from his hope of engendering friendly criticism for his researches from acute spokesmen of widely varied points of view. The Club, as he once described it, was to be an "intellectual fraternity."

Rochester, chartered as a city only twenty years before, a scant two decades after its founding, was already, with 40,000 inhabitants, the twenty-first city in size in the nation and the proud possessor of both a university and a theological seminary. The University's recently arrived president, Dr. Martin B. Anderson, and three of its professors (imported four years before by omnibus, together with a stack of books, from Madison, as Emerson was to describe the event) as well as two of the city's leading clergymen, two of Morgan's fellow barristers, each of whom had published a book, the editor of a local newspaper, and Dr. Chester Dewey, the city's leading scientist and revered educator—all hastened to accept membership in The Club, which their wives soon characterized as the Pundit Club. Eight additional men accepted membership during the second visit —two more professors, two of the city's ablest physicians, another editor, another lawyer, and two more clergymen, bringing the total to seventeen, which remained its standard membership for many decades. No miller, merchant, banker, or craftsman was included in this select circle.

For twelve years, Morgan as secretary issued a list of speaker-hosts for the successive fortnightly meetings, which were generally held in the host's dining room and library. Each member was scheduled to compose and read a paper on a subject of his choice, and the topics ranged widely, as intended, from E. Peshine Smith's initial paper on "The Gold Currency" in November 1854, to "The Relation of Insanity to Civilization" by Dr. Henry W. Dean a decade later. Morgan's successive annual papers provided a rough guide to the development of his theories concerning the laws of descent and systems of consanguinity among the Indian tribes and among a widening range of human races as his researches progressed, culminating in his great books on Ancient Society. Dr. Anderson, like most of the other members, was more catholic in his interests, "taking all knowledge for his province," as Professor William C. Morey would later put it in his "Reminiscences of the Pundit Club." His papers on "The Origin and Dispersion of the Celtic Race," on "The Catacombs," "Serfdom," and "Trial by Jury" displayed an encyclopaedic rather than an analytic mind. The classical interests of most of the professors and of several other members commanded major attention for a number of decades in the club, which nurtured the output of several books in that field. Dr. Augustus H. Strong, president of the Theological Seminary, who held the record for club membership, 49 years, delivered papers on Browning, Dante, Homer, Vergil, Milton, Goethe, and Shakespeare among other literary or philosophical writers but seldom approached the contemporary world.

Yet, despite the literary papers read by Dr. Strong, Judge Harvey Humphrey, and others, and the classical studies contributed by Professors A. C. Kendrick and A. H. Mixer, the major intellectual ferment in the Club in the late sixties and seventies centered around the question of the Origin of the Species and the divergent theories of Agassiz, Darwin, and Spencer. While the aging Dr. Dewey could not accept such infidelities, Dr. Edward Mott Moore, Dr. W. W. Ely, and Dr. Dean displayed more receptivity in papers read before the Club. Morgan, who knew Agassiz and who visited Darwin and Spencer during his European trip in 1871, avoided taking a stand in the controversy but studied their writings carefully for implications on his own research.

As the controversy spilled over into the public press after the arrival of the Rev. Newton Mann at the Unitarian Church, Morgan responded to an appeal from Mann, Robert Matthews, and others to lead the discussion in a newly formed Spencer Club in 1872. Its fortnightly sessions devoted to an intensive study of Spencer's works continued for successive Winters until Morgan's death in 1881 when for another season the discussion focused on Morgan's own works.

Literary club associations and programs acquired a new diversity in the 1880s. Shakespeare, a frequent topic among the Pundits, had become the sole subject of Rochester's second literary society, organized in December 1865 in order to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the poet's death. The Shakespeare Society, unlike the intimate clubs we are chiefly concerned with, was open to all interested persons, and many of its lectures, readings of plays, and stage performances were open to the public and supplied Rochesterians with intermittent opportunities for an enjoyment of the great master throughout the next half-century. A somewhat comparable Browning Club, which made its appearance in 1884, was more socially exclusive and acquired a solemn devotional atmosphere under the leadership of its hostess, Mrs. George W. Fisher. A less prestigious Spinoza Literary Society, formed by a group of Polish Jews in 1885, conducted periodic study sessions for several years. A Literary and Elocutionary Club organized in 1879 held monthly meetings for over two decades, generally reserving two or more sessions for the reading of poems or essays written by its active members. Perhaps the most unique club of the period was the Ignorance Club organized in 1880 by Jane Marsh Parker; it was the first women's literary club in the city and each member agreed to keep an ignorance book in which she would list queries to be submitted for study and enlightenment at the monthly club meetings.

Three clubs more closely patterned after the Pundit Club made their appearance in the eighties. The demise of the Spencer Club prompted several of its members to welcome a call by Charles E. Fitch, editor of the Democrat, to form a new club, which was duly established early in 1882 as the Fortnightly Club. Dr. Charles E. Dewey, son of the Pundit's Chester Dewey, was chosen secretary and a list of twelve members was prepared including a wider spread of occupations and interests than that of the Pundits. In addition to two physicians and two lawyers it enrolled three businessmen, two journalists, and three clergymen of widely different faiths. Comprised, at least at the start, of a younger generation than the Pundits, their literary papers ventured more frequently into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, appraising Emerson and Carlyle, Schopenhauer, Shelley, Rousseau, and even Zola among others. Although the controversy over evolution had now subsided, Robert Matthews, an avid Spencerian, would keep that position under scrutiny in successive papers for a dozen years despite the repeated protests of his fellow businessman, David B. Murphy, whose philanthropic spirits were outraged by Spencer's social determinism. Controversy was not lacking in the club, as Professor John R. Slater assures us in his historical review of the Fortnightly Club in 1948 where he records other sharp disagreements between Professor Henry F. Burton and Joseph T. Alling; between the Rev. Algernon Crapsey and Father Edward J. Hanna, which were always in the end muted, while Dewey, Rabbi Max Landsberg, and President Rush Rhees preserved their intellectual objectivity and serenity, qualities which the young Slater admired and eventually acquired in full measure.

Not to be outdone, several of the ladies in St. Luke's and First Presbyterian churches met in October 1885 to form the Roundabout Club. The sixteen ladies who responded to the call by Mrs. David M. Hough adopted a constitution (the first among the Rochester clubs) which declared that "Its object shall be the mutual improvement of its members in literature, art, science, and the vital interests of the day." A special subject of study was announced for each year with topics related to it assigned to each member. Under the leadership of Mrs. Hough, the first twelve years were devoted to a study of the history, literature, and art of Italy, France, Spain, Germany, England, and Scotland; after several more seasons on republics, rivers, and islands, the club tackled a selected list of books each winter. Its membership increased to twenty with newcomers chosen from the daughters and daughters-in-law of the founders, and the Roundabout Club not only celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1935, but is still meeting today.

A third club formed in the 1880s drew together ten of the city's leading clergymen. Dr. William R. Taylor of Brick Church, one of a half-dozen relative newcomers to Rochester, took the lead in organizing a supper club in 1887. Alpha Chi, as it was named, increased its membership to fifteen by adding two professors of philosophy and three keenly interested laymen and in the course of two decades devoted twenty-four sessions to theology, twenty-one to science, eighteen to sociology, fifteen to ethics, fourteen to biography, twelve to philosophy, eleven to religion, and nine to literature. With Dr. Taylor, Dr. Henry H. Stebbins, Professors George M. Forbes, and Walter Rauschenbush as active members, it provided a stimulating intellectual vitality to the religious scene in Rochester throughout its thirty-five years.

Dr. William C. Gannett, who never joined the Alpha Chi, had his own Unity Club at the Unitarian Church. Though it sometimes numbered a hundred members and does not strictly fit into our category of clubs, Gannett's practice of dividing its members into small classes for the intensive study and reading of the works of Thoreau, Hawthorne, George Eliot, Lowell, and Browning, and his social studies classes reading and debating the works of Bellamy, Ely, Spencer, Fisk, and the Fabians, always under the tutelage of Dr. or Mrs. Gannett, entitles the Unity Club some notice. An ecstatic letter from Abram Lipsky in New York in 1920, regretting his absence from a reunion of the club in Rochester, recalls his "incredible luck" as a young man "in being allowed to swim within the sphere of influence of two such leaders . . . in the glorious company of the Unity Club."

Meanwhile, the 1890s had brought an even more diversified outburst of literary and book clubs. The Wednesday Club, the Tuesday Reading Club, and the American History Class, each destined for a long life, all sprang into being in 1890, marking an upsurge of feminine intellectual activity.

The Wednesday Morning Club, initially organized by the wives and sisters of Fortnightly members, concentrated more deliberately in its early years on literary topics than any of the city's earlier clubs. Meeting every third Wednesday morning for hour-long readings and discussions of Emerson, George Eliot, Howells, Blake, Browning, Tolstoy, Longfellow, and a host of other writers, provided a rich literary stimulation for the lunches that followed. But some of the women progressively enrolled in the club could not content themselves with a passive literary approach to life's problems. Helen Barrett Montgomery, Mrs. Mary Gannett, Mrs. Joseph T. Alling, Mrs. Henry Danforth, and several others of Rochester's most socially minded women began reading papers on such topics as "Recent Municipal Reforms," "The Mission of the Liberal Thinker," "Women's Task Masters," "Women's Legal Rights in Various States," and other pressing issues. Indeed as the years passed the Wednesday Club, with an eye to the election of talented women from varied walks of life, developed not only a warm intellectual fellowship for favored members of old families but served as an induction and training center for promising newcomers such as Mrs. Kathrine Koller Diez and Mrs. Gerry Reddig, bringing them into the main stream. A historical paper by Mrs. Alling marking its fiftieth anniversary and another by Mrs. Dorothy Cumpston on its eightieth birthday add much to the city's historical record as well as to that of this continuing club.

The two other 1890 clubs long adhered to their original commitments. The American History Class, formed that year by a number of young faculty wives under the inspiration of Professor Morey, met periodically throughout the Winter months of succeeding years for reports and discussions of their programmed studies. They carried on with new recruits as replacements, much as a postgraduate course, but under the independent management of successive presidents. Their probing study of American history soon required an exploration of the history of other countries, and as the years passed the History Class, as it is now known, tackled with unflagging enthusiasm topics of an increasingly specialized historical character, such as the recent study of innovative women artists: one of several recent years, as reported by its president, Mrs. Susan Schilling, devoted exclusively to women's history.

The Tuesday Reading Club, also launched in 1890, assembled a group of ladies eager to participate in the shared reading of selected books in the parlors of successive members. When, after a few years, interest flagged because some of the readers stumbled or failed to hold their attention, the original club began to flounder, but one reader, Mrs. Elysabith Lyon Kidd, was a trained dramatist who captured the character and message of different poets and authors. She attracted a group of fascinated listeners who, at the invitation of the Lyon sisters, gathered on designated "Golden Tuesdays" in succeeding years to hear her lovely voice and enjoy a dazzling performance that eventually carried them through some seventy-eight books. When in 1958 Mr. and Mrs. Kidd found a winter home in North Carolina her readings in Rochester were widely spaced and the ladies who had enjoyed them for years determined to revive the original Tuesday Reading Club and resume its program of shared readings. Aided by Mrs. Kidd's occasional visits, it carried on into the 1970s.

The onset of the depression in the mid-nineties may have focused the attention of many Rochesterians on more practical concerns, but the opening of the Reynolds Library on Spring Street in 1895 provided new access to books and new facilities for literary clubs. Its report for the next year records a registration of thirty clubs, sixteen of which scheduled meetings in its rooms. Among those meeting at the library were an English Poetry Class numbering twelve members, a Thackeray Club of twenty-five members, a Tennyson Club, a Round Robin Reading Club of twenty-two members, Miss Hale's Shakespeare Class, St. Joseph's Literary Club, a Teachers' Reading Circle, and the Roundabout Club, which had several shelves of books on reserve in an alcove adjoining the room where the clubs met. The Library reports over the next decade show fluctuations in the number and character of the clubs registered and of those using its meeting room, which, after 1900, included several Chautauqua Reading Circles. While some of the groups apparently succumbed after a few years (as in Birmingham but probably for a different reason) Rochester's active interest in books at the turn of the century could not be questioned.

Indeed, three new clubs formed in 1897 proved enduring. The College Women's Club, organized that spring, was not strictly a literary club and was open to all college women. Their number in Rochester at the time was, however, not large, and one of the club's major activities was a study group which concentrated in its first year on Russian literature and in its second year on the history of The Netherlands. Its members chose aspects of these and later topics for papers which formed the basis of their group discussions, generally held in the Reynolds Library until 1917 when the club was absorbed into the A.A.U.W.

Another still more enduring women's literary club was the Reading Club founded in November 1897 and renamed a few years later The Hakkoreoth—the Hebrew word for The Readers. Its members, who generally numbered in the twenties, took turns as hosts and readers, presenting a brief review and extended readings from the designated book. Club members, over the years, tended to select biographies, books of letters, or of family life. An occasional report by a member on her foreign journey, or a reading of an original poem by Mrs. Elaine Clark or Miss Florence McCurdy added spice to some meetings, but the variety and quality of the books covered proved sufficient to hold the interest of "a group of gracious women who take time out of busy lives to think about books, delight in their varieties of expression, and who reach out to share their enjoyment with others," as Mrs. Wilbour Saunders put it in a paper delivered on the club's seventy-fifth anniversary in 1972. The Hakkoreoth is still actively meeting.

Meanwhile, the persistence and prestige of the Pundit and the Fortnightly Clubs, each of which had enrolled a few prominent business leaders eager to participate in their programs, and the scant prospect of an election to their restricted memberships prompted the organization of a third gentleman's club on that pattern in 1897. Charles Mulford Robinson, the city's leading landscape architect, took the initiative in the formation of the Humdrum Club that November. The original group of eight young professional and business men soon enrolled a dozen more, including Claude Bragdon, Louis Antisdale, and Harper Sibley, assuring a lively and pragmatic consideration of contemporary problems. Robinson, as secretary for the first twelve years, seized the opportunity, as Morgan had in the Pundits, to develop some of his theories about the "City Beautiful" in successive papers that would ultimately find expression in his books on the subject. Despite a rule that all attendants appear in black tie at its dinner meetings, the sprightly humor and breadth of coverage of the club's succession of papers has welded its diversified membership into an enduring fraternity.


Twentieth-Century Clubs

Rochester experienced a political, social, and industrial rebirth in the early 1900s. The excitement afforded by the Good Government Clubs organized in each ward, by the newly forming social welfare agencies and the Morons Club organized by their directors, by the weekly forums of the men's and women's City Clubs separately launched in 1911, and by the emergence of several new technological industries whose research executives formed a local branch of the National Association of Torch Clubs absorbed the energies of many activist citizens. The city's population had increased four-fold during the Pundit's first half-century; it had trebled during the Fortnightly's first fifty years, and the membership of both clubs reflected its more industrial character. Indeed, members writing papers in most of the twelve existing book and literary clubs were turning from philosophical and literary topics to more mundane community and national problems. Their periodic recruitment of new members to replace those dropping out eased the pressure for the formation of new literary clubs.

Yet the city's interest in books was by no means declining. The facilities of the Reynolds Library were constantly under pressure, and mounting demands for the creation of a public library were finally answered by the establishment of a system of branch libraries in 1911 and the opening of its headquarters offices in the old State Industrial School building. George Humphrey's old-book store on Spring Street was becoming a favorite haunt for book collectors, young Elmer Adler, George Skivington, Edward G. Miner, and Robinson among them, and three of the city's six newspapers were featuring book reviews in their pages at least once a week.

The University was likewise entering a new era, assuming the responsibilities of its title by expanding its offerings, engaging new and younger faculty members, and preparing in the 1920s to move to its new River Campus. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the younger faculty members should band together in a new literary club, named the Blind Alley Club, in 1927. Most of its eighteen members were professional men, chiefly from the university, and while they were able to attract a few leading businessmen, Marion Folsom from Kodak and Raymond Ball the banker, for example, the most active readers were Professors Willson Coates, Neil C. Arvin, and Alfred Jones, who sometimes filled in gaps in the program when their busy colleagues had to beg off and, incidentally, supplied most of the literary and philosophical papers—'The Uses of Reason" by Jones, "The French Novel Between the Wars" by Arvin, a review of Spengler's The Decline of the West by Coates. Most of the 129 papers recorded by Coates as its secretary dealt with the issues currently troubling the world throughout the club's two decades.

Shortly after the new professors launched the Blind Alley Club, several of their wives joined with other young women in founding the Book Club, which made a more deliberate approach to contemporary literature. Its members pledged to read, exchange, and report on selected books, and although as their membership increased to twenty-five they occasionally compromised on a picnic their focus was on current books. In the thirties, as reported by Mrs. Eleanor G. Gilbert at their fortieth anniversary, they read and discussed Gone With the Wind,Inside EuropePreface to Morals among others; and in the forties The Wave of the FutureA Tree Grows in BrooklynCrythe Beloved CountryHow Green Was My Valley, to mention only a few.

While the ladies of the Book Club were content with a modest title, the founders of The Philosophers Club in 1937 boldly laid claim to loftier standards. Jack Gitelman, attorney, and Jonas Knopf, clothing merchant, took the lead in organizing the club by inviting a half-dozen of their business associates to hear Dr. Jones of the university discuss "Philosophy and the Philosophers" at the organizational meeting. Apparently he gave the term a sufficiently broad interpretation to justify the new club's decision to proceed without further counsel from academics, for a full decade elapsed before Arthur J. May, the first professor to gain admittance, was elected, more perhaps for his articulate wit than for his academic distinction. Distinction, in fact, was not a major qualification, as the men who were elected and participated during succeeding years (forty-five in the first forty-five years) were more generally noted for their awareness of contemporary problems, the objectivity and innovativeness of their quest for solutions, and the wit with which they could engage in contentious discussions. Indeed, one of the prize features of the Philosophers, as judged by Harold Hacker in his historical paper covering the club's first forty-five years, was the table talk engaged in freely by members with widely different points of view—doctors vs. lawyers, the political decision-making process, the future of downtown. Another feature of the club was the practice of reading the minutes of the previous meeting at each session, recalling details of the discussion as well as of the paper, and revealing the talents and alertness of the secretary, a practice in which Thomas M. Hampson the current secretary has set a new standard of wit and coverage during the last decade. As Harold Hacker summed up his first attempt in 1975 to review the achievements of the Philosophers, "While I am sure that we all appreciate the hard work that goes into the preparation of the monthly papers, I suspect that the real drawing card of The Philosophers is our continuing friendship and camaraderie."

Few references to books appear in the records of the Philosophers, or in the recent minutes and schedules of the Fortnightly, Humdrum, and Pundit clubs. Most of the women's clubs have maintained a more active interest in the printed word, although there, too, it was the substance of their content rather than the quality of their expression that generally commanded attention. But if the loosely defined literary clubs of Rochester have in a sense moved beyond books, books have not been forgotten or overlooked in the city. Literary classes and book-review clubs continue to appear in varied churches and societies, such as the A.A.U.W. and the Century Club, and as adjuncts of branch and town libraries.

Of course Rochester's most successful book-review program was and is the "Books Sandwiched In" of the Friends of the Rochester Public Library, inaugurated in October 1956. Interested audiences that frequently packed and sometimes overflowed the third-floor auditorium of the Rundel Memorial Building have gathered on successive Tuesday noons in spring and fall series for three full decades. The high merits of most of the books selected for review and the skill displayed by the successive reviewers, most of them specialists on related subjects, have combined to provide a continuing literary feast unrivalled in Rochester if in any other city. The Public Library's earlier sponsorship of several Great Books reading classes, that commenced in the late forties and continued for several years, was a worthy if less original contribution to local book lovers. Its annual salute to local authors, commenced in 1956, has seen the lineup of authors increase from a squad of ten to a regiment of more than thirty in 1986.


Republished with permission from Rochester History Vol. XLVIII, Nos. l and 2, Jan-Apr. 1986.