• U.S.

Books: Great American Reader

8 minute read
TIME

In Rochelle. Tex., 35 ladies, meeting to hear Mrs. Richard Moseley discuss Dr. Arthur Hertzler’s Horse and Buggy Doctor, answered the roll call by giving home remedies. In nearby San Angelo members of the Literary Review Club met in the Hotel Cactus to hear a review of My Sister Eileen. In Raleigh. N. C., at 3:30 p. m. on an ordinary winter Tuesday, 1) The Book Guild, 2) the Anne Hathaway Book Club. 3) the Lanier, 4) the Stratford, 5) the Entre Nous, 6) the Cynthia, 7) the Cosmoc, 8) the Clio met to talk about books. In a thousand other communities the unknown, unstudied, frequently ridiculed ladies’ literary societies of the U. S. gathered to pass their final judgment on contemporary U. S. writing.

Nobody knows how many such clubs there are in the U. S. Nobody knows their total membership. No national directory lists them, as directories list garden clubs and associations of model-railroad enthusiasts. Publishers, tired of attempts by fakers to cadge free books, usually toss their letters into the wastebasket. The bookmaking business has never investigated their scope, their preferences, their influence on U. S. taste.

But everybody knows their total membership is enormous. In the past five years they have spawned prolifically in Omaha, which claims 1,250 members. Kansas City clubs have more than 3,500. In Minneapolis 60 of the 86 clubs associated with the Minnesota Federation of Women’s Clubs concentrate on reviews of new books, claim 4,000 members. Conservative estimate of literary club membership in San Francisco is 5,000. Portland, Ore. has at least 750, as has Nashville, Tenn. In San Antonio and nearby towns there are 150 literary societies of all kinds, with 3,500 members.

Storytellers. No longer are women’s literary clubs such gatherings of bigots as Sinclair Lewis satirized in Main Street. The dreary picture of a typical club that Robert and Helen Lynd painted in Middletown in Transition is equally out of date.

Such clubs can still be found. But in up-to-the-minute literary societies members listen to experts rather than review books themselves. A brand new occupation has grown up wherever women’s clubs abound —the difficult, exhausting, well-paid and influential vocation of professional reviewer.

Reviewers for women’s clubs are usually middle-aged clubwomen who have shown a special aptitude for condensing books in talks to their own clubs. Gaining first local, then State-wide reputations, they gradually build up circuits of clubs which they address once or twice a month.

They get fees ranging from $5 to $100 a review, dart from club to club giving bright, articulate, dramatic digests of novels, have a memorized repertory of five or six books. They talk no nonsense about art and culture. Instead they concentrate on retelling stories (sometimes doing a better job than the authors) in intense narratives which may last three hours. Knowing their audiences, they soft-pedal shocking scenes for some, play them up for others. Booksellers, who believe that old-line literary societies stimulate sales, dislike such professional reviewers, feel listeners never buy books so thoroughly described.

Some typical reviewers:

> In Omaha Mrs. A. F. Holt, wife of a real-estate salesman, has a regular circuit of six clubs, talks occasionally before others, has a repertory of five novels and two biographies, confesses that it is difficult to keep from mixing them up.

> In San Antonio bright, efficient Mrs. Sherwood Avery, wife of a Social Security executive, reviews regularly for ten clubs, travels all over South Texas, charges from $5 to $35 for a review, generally reviews each book at least ten times. Twice a month she appears at the Bright Shawl, tearoom for San Antonio Junior Leaguers, retells the story of some new book while some hundred Junior League members lunch and listen.

> In California Mrs. Jack Vallely now stands at the top of her trade. Fifteen years ago Mrs. Vallely, wife of a San Fernando Valley ranchman, took over the entire program of a Los Angeles reading club when other members failed to write the papers assigned to them. Next few years she spent giving them a course in world literature since 4000 B.C. Before the course was over she was in demand as a speaker for women’s clubs throughout Southern California. Now she prepares one talk each month, gives it from 28 to 30 times at clubs from San Diego to Oakland, gets as much as $100 a talk. She visits Manhattan each December to check with publishers on forthcoming books, stops off in Washington to pick up late political gossip for Westerners.

Self-Improvement. Literary societies vary from one U. S. city to another almost as much as the weather. In Portland they are primarily studious, much interested in politics. In Nashville they are largely informal, unpretentious, less interested in self-improvement than in social doings. In Portland ladies knit and darn during meetings. In Seattle the practice is frowned upon. Clubs range from the solemn, 36-year-old Browning Society of San Francisco (150 members) to the amiable Kipling Club of Nashville, which never studied Kipling and whose members cannot recall why it was named for him.

The 20 members of Nashville’s Potpourri Club resolutely review 20 new books a year. But the 25 girls of the famed old Query Club (organized 53 years ago) take their literature lightly, dawdled over their study of famous cities last year, are on famous families now. In this club girls who marry become inactive members. Because a courtly wholesale druggist gave the club candy when he married a member 40 years ago “to compensate the organization for the loss,” a solid Nashville tradition decrees that club members get a huge box of candy from each groom when a Query member marries.

Soberly studious is Kansas City’s big Book Chat Club. Founded 17 years ago by five ladies of whom four are still active, it has grown to take in 300 members, meets at the Hotel Muehlebach, discusses current bestsellers, without, say Kansas City booksellers, appreciably increasing book sales. But in Omaha, the Matthews Bookstore, biggest in the city, actively organizes book clubs, has been so successful that Omaha now boasts more of them than any city of its size in the U. S. Most influential is the Dundee. Complaining that there are not enough books with uplifting messages, Dundee clubwomen goin for exhaustive analyses of novels, one member charting the plot, a new member describing the setting, and a veteran speaker discussing the philosophy. Clearest proof of Omaha literary societies’ influence is in the history of Lloyd Douglas’ famed inspirational novel, Magnificent Obsession. Passed up by Eastern reviewers, the book was plugged by a local minister to Omaha book clubs, began to sell throughout Nebraska, has since sold about 225,000 copies.

Midway between society and self-improvement are groups like Our Reading Club of San Antonio (&Oldest in Texas/’ a claim bitterly disputed by the Browning Club of Waco), which meets in an arty, 102-year-old Mexican hut to read carefully prepared papers on subjects like &Art in Literature.& In the same category belong Nashville’s Friday Morning Literary Club, which began as the Tea and Repartee Club 43 years ago, San Francisco’s Cap and Bells (200 members) which assembles in the swank Fairmont Hotel.

Unabashed seekers for self-improvement are literary societies for Negroes in San Antonio—the Utopia Club. Elizabeth Prophet Club, Hotel Men’s Wives Club, etc.—which solemnly discuss books by Negroes, an occasional novel like Gone With the Wind, in which Negroes appear.

But whether they seek culture or enter tainment, most literary-society meetings go smoothly, end with tea and gossip.

Exceptions occur when politics butts in: the 39th season of Portland’s Tuesday Afternoon Club started badly this year when Mrs. Edward Pelton’s review of America’s Sixty Families created so much dissension that the club decided to quit talking about books on current subjects. To avoid such regrettable incidents the conservative Portland Study Club chooses titles with great care, likes Pearl Buck’s novels or such works as Bertita Harding’s life of Franz Joseph of Austria, Golden Fleece, which Mrs. R. Roy Palmer reviewed last month.

Complaint. Most momentous change that has taken place in literary societies is the development of independence. Professional reviewers find that many a highly praised best-seller falls flat when summarized, while an inconspicuous novel sets off a spark.

Touchiest subjects are political disputes, but most clubs have approved forthright political studies like Vincent Sheean’s Personal History, John Gunther’s enlightening Inside Europe. Club programs show that much emphasis is placed on light romances. But in the last two years almost every important club in the U. S. has endorsed Van Wyck Brooks’s The Flowering of New England, which most U. S. critics would place near the top in any list of U. S. post-War works of literature.

Main criticisms of U. S. literary clubwomen about U. S. publishing are that books cost too much, are too long, that publishers try to dictate their reading habits by high-pressure publicity. In San Antonio, for example, club members snubbed Laura Krey’s highly publicized romance, . . . and Tell of Time, preferred Jonathan Daniels’ sober criticism, A Southerner Discovers the South. In Omaha, clubwomen feel that publishers pay too much attention to Manhattan opinion, not enough to the more spiritual interests of Midwesterners. But the major complaint of women’s literary clubs throughout the U. S. is that publishers talk down to them, defer to prejudices that are no longer strong, do not recognize how greatly they have changed since the days of Main Street.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com