Welcome to the Club
Get your glimpse into some of history’s most exclusive literary societies.
March 18, 2019 | by Anush Ter-Khachatryan
What would literature be without its movements, its rivalries, and — of course — its literary clubs. From New York to Paris to Tbilisi, these groups were a haven for brainstorming, pranking, and repartee through the ages.
Composed of Victorian upper-middle class bohemians, the Bloomsbury Group produced some of the most iconic writers of the 20th century. Founded by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant in London’s Bloomsbury district — hence the origin of the name — the group met at Bell’s house every Thursday to share drinks and conversation on literature. But that wasn’t all they did.
In 1910 Virginia Woolf and a few other Bloomsbury members pulled off one of the great literary pranks of all time. They tricked the British Royal Navy by dressing up in Abyssinian garments and boarding the ship Dreadnought as “emperors of Abyssinia.” They spoke in accented Latin, recited from The Aeneid, and — demanding prayer mats — erupted in exclamations of “Bunga, bunga!”
Stratford-on-Odeon was not just a group of writers. It was a moveable feast situated on Paris’ Left Bank on the Rue de l’Odéon, inside the Shakespeare & Company bookstore. The name was coined by James Joyce who used part of the bookstore as his office, peering out from behind his black eyepatch at the scene unfolding before him.
Among those present were Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald — writers gathered by an unusual bond with this quaint Parisian bookstore and its proprietor Sylvia Beach. Beach was the one who published Ulysses when nobody believed in its magnitude. She also received Hemingway’s mail.
The store closed during the German occupation of Paris, putting an end to the informal group meetings.
Algonquin Round Table
Algonquin Round Table, previously known as The Vicious Circle, was a circle of New York writers, critics, and wits who met each day at the Algonquin Hotel for lunch and wisecracks.
The notable members included Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, and Charles McArthur. In addition to luncheons, the group worked productively to write and stage a revue called “No Sirree,” staged only once in 1922. They also played cribbage, poker, and from time to time pulled off pranks on each other until eventually the group drifted apart in 1932, leaving the round table to other hotel guests, and drifting into history.
But Parker’s wit didn’t end there. Her epitaph reads: “Pardon my dust.”
The Inklings literary discussion group was initiated by professors of the University of Oxford who met between 1930s and the 1950s. Among the members were J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lord David Cecil, and several others who met on Thursday evenings in Lewis’s dorm room at Magdalen College to discuss ongoing works in epic fantasy and hold competitions to see who could read the supremely horrid prose of Amanda McKittrick Ros the longest without laughing.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings developed its flesh and sinews during these gatherings, becoming an all time classic.
Armenia also had its share of literary fun in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when several writers revolutionized genre and language, and developed new characters for the 20th century. One of those writers was Hovhannes Tumanyan, a 30-year-old poet with an aristocratic moustache. He founded Vernatun in 1899 on the fourth floor of his house in Tbilisi and gathered a circle of emerging writers around him.
During intense all-night discussions, the members would circulate satirical or comical comments. Derenik Demirchyan, meanwhile, would draw endless caricatures of the members. As they made mischief and clashed over Sophocles and Shakespeare, these writers were on their way to becoming some of the giants of Armenian literature.
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.