Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Sunday Salon: On Literary Salons of Then and Now

Thanks to BlogHop, I've gained a few new readers in the last few days, which always thrills me. I am most appreciative to each one of you for stopping by. In case you're also new to The Sunday Salon, I've included a link explaining more later in this post. (My not-quite-so-subtle way of having you read the whole post ... or, not.)

This week I've been reading The Red Leather Diary, by Lily Koppel. It's not Lily's diary, however; it is that of Florence Wolfson, a teenager living in New York during the early 1930s. If you haven't read it, it is a fascinating glimpse of that time period. Lily Koppel combines extensive interviews and Florence's diary entries to create an exquisite book. There's been a lot of positive buzz about this among book bloggers, to whom I am grateful - I might have missed out on this had it not been for all your reviews. Hopefully I will finish this today (only 70 pages left) as I have a little more time than usual to read.

I'm at the part of the diary (page 237-238) where Florence, a 19 year old graduate student at Columbia University, starts a literary salon.

"As Florence bent to light the fire in the fireplace, she unpinned her long hair and let it cascade seductively onto her shoulders as her guests pondered Aristotle's Art of Poetry and the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas. These were their heroes. Her first year at Columbia, Florence began a salon in the Wolfsons' living room, assembling an avant-garde group hungry for ideas and as passionate about words as she was. Ideas were their aphrodisiacs, the intellectual lifeblood of their being. Each member's day-to-day existence was driven by discussions of Socrates and Plato, relating lofty truths to daily acts like riding the subway. The circle was their real life. They were bohemians, wandering along Riverside Park on a Sunday afternoon, stopping for a thirty-five cent Chinese banquet or rounds of beers. 'Eccentric' or 'unusual personality' described just about everyone in the circle.

"The salon members were flamboyant, shrewd, artistic exiles from immigrant families. The American dream, for their parents, had been to get rich at whatever cost, no matter what labor was involved. Their parents were craftsmen, tradesmen, and merchants. Their life's work was work. Florence and her friends wanted to be recognized for their artistic genius. They read The New Yorker, Harper's, and The Atlantic. They despised the bourgeois ethics perpetrated by magazines like Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. They read aloud from Hound & Horn, a literary quarterly founded by Harvard undergrads Lincoln Kirstien and Varian Fry in 1927, devoted to writers they idolized, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein.

"Florence served white wine on a silver tray at the group's midnight sessions. Her friends stayed until early morning, talking philosophy, getting drunk, having little orgies in Florence's bedroom, seeking physical as well as intellectual pleasure, all in pursuit of 'the Socratic quest.' 'Know thyself - gnothi seauton,' reminded their hostess. They meditated on Socrates's famous line, 'The unexamined life is not worth living."

How I would have loved to have been part of Florence Wolfson's literary salons, I thought, as I read that passage. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Discussing literature and exchanging ideas, escaping from one's everyday life for the time it takes to write a blog post and being something more than what we do as a profession or a career or however we pay the bills, striving for something more than materialism from getting rich at any cost?

And then it struck me.

I am part of such a salon, just in a different form than what was in the 1930s. If you think about it, it's really not all that different than what we are doing here, online, on our blogs and in forums like She Writes, in communities like The Sunday Salon. (There's your link to what this is all about, as promised at the outset of this post.)

It's especially apropos this weekend, I think, with the finale of BlogHer '09 in Chicago and several of us (myself included) beginning to make our plans for being at BlogHer '10 in New York City (how apropos, with the subject of this post!) a whole year from now.

I love this whole notion of blogging, of coming together to discuss books, current events, and ideas - be they highbrow ones or the things people do to express their inexplicable adoration of The Jonas Brothers.

I hope you're having a great Sunday and that your week ahead is filled with great books, a great exchange of ideas, camaraderie with people you love and admire, chances to escape from your everyday self, discovering and recovering your soul.

Thanks to all of you, mine certainly will be.


Beth Kephart said...

Oh my gosh. I love the new look, and I love you using your name (which I long knew but didn't know if others knew)and I love that you have picked up some new readers. Anna is just going home now from Blogher and seems to have had a great time. Next year, your turn!!

(great reason to get up early, by the way, that photo you took)

Melissa Stover said...

if you are ever in front of me in the library i will be thankful that you have a bigger pile than i do. we embarrass ourselves with our book pile.

JoAnn said...

I enjoyed The Red Leather Diary so much, and love the connection you made with The Sunday Salon! I'm not familiar with BlogHer, She Writes, or BlogHop...will have to check them out. Also, it's nice to 'meet' you - just noticed your name has been added to your blog!

Stephanie said...

Hey Melissa,
Great post! Recently, my editor and I met at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC for a morning meeting and she was telling me how back in the day it was a literary salon. The spirits of those gone before us where in that space-it was so cool.
I hope my week ahead is exactly what you wished us!
The book sounds great.

Lori said...

I've read reviews on the Red Leather Diary. I think I'll add it to my "Look for List" when I go to the library!

Neat comparison of how they did it then and how we do it now. They look down on us and think "Wow".