By Julie Dobrow
In 1886, a group of Boston-based literary-minded men, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Dean Howells and Thomas Bailey Aldrich joined with Reverend Arthur Wentworth Eaton in attempting to form an authors club. Their inspiration came from the New York Authors Club. Founded in 1882 by authors including Robert Louis Stevenson and Stephen Crane, this club was established as a vehicle for writers to gather together, discuss and evaluate the work of their peers.
In Boston, Reverend Eaton wrote to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the well-known abolitionist, author and literary critic, “the proposed authors’ club is not a personal enterprise, but an intentional movement concerning which…men interested in literature [would be] willing to take the steps to secure an experience of opinion.”
Despite some initial interest, the putative club had difficulty getting organized. So the following year, in 1887, Higginson sent out what he called an “Authors’ Club Circular” – a survey, actually – to a number of influential men of letters, academia and social status. The “Circular” posed three questions: was there a need for such an authors’ club in Boston? Did they need a building? Should they admit women? Higginson saved the responses to this “Circular” in an album that he ultimately donated to the Boston Public Library where it is housed today in its Special Collections.
What’s most interesting about the responses to his queries are the wildly divergent answers to the third question. For example, Edward Lowell wrote, “Emphatically no women, not that women are not as distinguished authors as men, but I think the club should be social, not oratorical, and that sociability among men requires tobacco, every day clothes, attitudes sometimes more comfortable than formal, and a general absence of ceremony.”
Higginson summarized the arguments against having women as including “greater freedom of intercourse; a more Bohemian flavor and greater economy of expenses.”
On the other side was an argument put forth by a George Pellent, who wrote, “The Club should surely be open to women, for they have much to teach us…the presence of ladies would do much to prevent a natural tendency toward disruptiveness, petty quarreling and lack of refinement.” Higginson’s own thoughts about why women should be allowed included “the seeming arrogance of assuming that all books are written by men.” Perhaps because of these significant divides, no authors club got launched.
Fast forward to 1899. At a tea given in Amherst by Mabel Loomis Todd (the first editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, along with Higginson), a group of women including May Alden Ward and Helen Winslow, one of Boston’s first newspaperwomen, discussed reviving the idea of a Boston Authors Club. They broached the topic with noted writer and social activist Julia Ward Howe. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” author reportedly said, “Go ahead. Call some people together here at my house. We will form a club and it will be a good one too.”
In an article published in a publication called Clark’s Book Herald, Helen Winslow wrote, “There had been an attempt some time in the eighties to establish such a club; but no women were to be admitted and it was avowedly for the purpose of protecting the interests and furthering special causes pertaining to authors and their works – and although there had been some little talk and newspaper discussion over the project, the idea was allowed to die without any definite organization…After carefully thinking of the feasibility of such a plan, [I] broached the subject to Mrs. May Alden Ward and Mrs. Julia Ward Howe…on a visit to Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd at Amherst’s Observatory House. Mrs. Ward, with her usual sagacity, saw what a field existed for a delightful club and urged me to go on with the project as I laid it out. Accordingly, soon after my return to Boston I called on several of Boston’s leading literary men and women to talk the matter over with them.”
And so they did. The newly launched BAC included both women and men, somewhat of a novelty among organizations at the turn of the century. Julia Ward Howe was elected the first president. Over the years the BAC has counted among its membership many well-known writers, including Louise Chandler Moulton, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Isaac Asimov, Anne Sexton and Ellery Queen. Its members have also included people well known in other realms like the “father of public relations” Edward Bernays and sculptor Daniel Chester French. And some BAC members have been known by more eclectic appellations. In a published collection of essays about early members of the BAC, additional members listed included“Russell Gordon Carter, Gentleman and Scholar,” “William F. Boos, Noted Toxicologist,” and “Gamaliel Bradford, A profound student of human souls.”
Although the BAC’s early constitution suggests that its intent was to “… further literary purposes and to promote social intercourse among the authors of Boston and vicinity,” a glance at the programs from early BAC days make clear that the social component often took precedence. A 1903 program stated, “A Fifteen minute paper on the subject “The Absence and the Importance of a Worthy Literary Criticism in this Country,” will be read by Mr. George Willis Cooke, and will be followed by a very brief discussion. The rest of the afternoon will be devoted to social intercourse. Husbands and wives of members are, as usual, invited.”
In the early days of the BAC, membership included both those who were published authors and those who were passionate about books. There were also “resident” and “non-resident” categories of membership, the latter extending out in a 100 mile radius – perhaps to include people like Mabel Loomis Todd in Amherst, who had been instrumental in the early organization of the group.
In 1900, an article in The New York Times predicted the demise of the Boston Authors Club, perhaps because of the decision to include both men and women among its ranks. But today, the BAC continues to exist, more than a century since its founding.