Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Sunday Salon: On Salons Then and Now

I was saddened to hear this week of the March 6 death of Florence Wolfson Howitt, author of the diary that was the subject of Lily Koppel's wonderful book The Red Leather Diary: Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal. ("Florence Wolfson Howitt, Famed For Rediscovered Diary, Dies at 96" New York Times, March 7, 2012).

I absolutely loved The Red Leather Diary, which you can read my review of it here. During the summer of 2009, when I read it, this was a book that I was recommending to everyone. In fact, it was one of those readers (who then recommended it to her boss; I think Florence herself would have liked that) who emailed me with Florence's obituary, knowing that I am an avid reader of the obituaries but making sure I didn't miss this one - which I did.

On July 26, 2009, I wrote this post for The Sunday Salon.  It seems a fitting tribute to Florence for me to rerun these words once more:

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 communities like The Sunday Salon.
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.
May you rest in peace, Florence.  (That is, when you're not participating in the greatest of all literary salons in the hereafter.)

copyright 2012, Melissa, The Betty and Boo Chronicles If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

1 comment:

JoAnn said...

I'm so far behind reading blogs this week, but hearing about Florence's death on twitter last week saddened me. I loved The Red Leather Diary, too - RIP Florence Wolfson Howitt.