Behind Closed Doors at The Literary Club, One of the City’s Oldest and Most Secretive Societies

For more than 170 years, The Literary Club’s members have gathered on Monday nights. It’s a quintessential Cincinnati story of reading, fellowship, and male bonding.

Understand that what I say here isn’t going to be objective. As a member of The Literary Club since 2008, I am inevitably captive to its charms, traditions, foibles, and finer moments. I know which of my fellow “Literarians” (as we sometimes call ourselves) takes more than two cookies in the refreshment line following each week’s reading. I can anticipate with reasonable confidence whose delivery will delight and whose may not. Every Monday evening I look forward (as do most members) to the 40 minutes or so of fellowship and drinks preceding the evening’s presentation. I revere the black-tie anniversary dinner every October; the Christmas celebration with music, carols, and a big turkey dinner; and the June outing when we gather in an outdoor setting for dinner and a reading of the season’s final paper.

Photograph courtesy of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library
Photograph courtesy of Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library

The Literary Club is a Cincinnati institution that stretches back to 1849, founded by a group of mostly young men with an interest in the written word, the day’s issues, and a forum for discussion. Over the years, it became a gathering place for some of the city’s more prominent citizens. Two presidents, Rutherford Hayes and William Howard Taft, were members, as were such notables as Salmon P. Chase, Murray Seasongood, Robert A. Taft Jr., and artists Henry Farny and Frank Duveneck. Through the years, various trustees and heads of the region’s law firms, corporations, newspapers, and cultural, educational, and medical institutions have been members.

The format is simple. The Club opens its doors about 7 p.m. on Mondays. Of the approximately 100 members, all men, between 50 and 70 will likely drift in over the next hour and enjoy drinks together (served by the stalwart and cherished Nico Ranieri, who lives upstairs) until the president calls the meeting to order at 8 o’clock sharp. He stands at a podium on a small stage beneath the Club’s fabled slogan, “Here Comes One With a Paper” (taken from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost), and, after brief announcements, turns over the dais to whomever is presenting the evening’s reading.

The papers are the heart of the club. Each one is to be approximately 40 minutes in length. It’s to be read in its entirety, not ad-libbed or cobbled together from bullet points. Topics are varied but should not be travelogues, book reports, political polemics, or vocation-centric narratives. Accordingly, they range widely, with some recent examples including (1) the explosion of the steamer Sultana north of Memphis in April 1865, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history with close to 1,800 dead; (2) an examination of the difficulty of attaining the U.S. presidency from the position of vice president, with a look at four VPs who tried and failed to win election to the higher office; (3) “Extra Innings,” the particularly touching memoir of a man with a fatal disease whose death had been postponed, at least for a time, through a miracle of modern medicine; and (4) “Eating Football,” about playing for the Steak House team in junior high school in Gallipolis, Ohio, the sponsor being Bob Evans’s first restaurant.

Papers may be nonfiction (the vast majority), fiction, or even poetry. Some of the best-received combine aspects of the speaker’s own experiences with extrapolations to a larger message, such as dealing with an illness or surviving during wartime or wacky (in retrospect) occurrences over a work career. (Inevitably, Procter & Gamble anecdotes generate more than a few laughs.) Style of presentation is also important; a lively delivery can make the difference between holding an audience rapt and losing it altogether. Some years ago, after a less-than-bravura performance, a colleague confided to me, “That’s 40 minutes I’ll never get back.”

While there is no formal provision for discussing the papers afterwards, refreshments are served following their reading—sandwich fixings, a hot entrée, fresh fruit, and cookies. The food is a predictably popular part of the evening, and most attendees stay for another hour or so to enjoy it and the conversations begun prior to the evening’s proceedings.

All that said, I still haven’t articulated what is, to my mind, The Literary Club’s soul, and that is the love its members bring to their affiliation. This love—commitment, really—is something unusual. To understand it, you almost have to be involved; it has, I think, many parts.

First is the sense of belonging to something very old, with a distinguished provenance that’s quintessentially Cincinnati. Although not concerned with books and reading per se, the club has deep literary roots in several organizations that preceded its founding and with such notables as Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and Daniel Drake. Ralph Waldo Emerson was an early guest at the club, brought in to deliver six lectures. Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Booker T. Washington were also visitors. Add these to the noteworthy local membership, and it’s no surprise that today’s members feel part of something special.

Almost as unique as the club’s heritage is the clubhouse. A small federalist gem sandwiched between the Phelps Marriott and Western and Southern headquarters across from Lytle Park, it’s handsome on the exterior and rich with history on the interior. Paintings, documents, portraits, and such artifacts as a tattered flag from Jacob Burnet’s pre-Civil War rifle drills adorn the walls. On the ground floor are the reading room, where meetings take place, and the library, where archives of papers going back to the beginning reside. In either space, it’s impossible to not feel that you’re in rarefied air, a place both timeless and fine-tuned to its purpose. The general public is not permitted inside.

Another reward of membership is the opportunity to become acquainted with others of both common sensibilities and, often, considerable accomplishment in civilian life. Few who come into the club do so knowing many of the incumbents. But quickly enough, during cocktails and refreshments, they turn that around, and people who were recently strangers become Monday night companions and maybe close friends.

Finally, there is the sense of engagement in something unusual: the chance to share ideas and experiences through papers that are almost always carefully crafted and, at their best, memorable. With the obligation to write coming around about every 24 to 30 months, many find the question of what their subject should be their greatest challenge. Yet once settled upon, they take the task quite seriously. No one gets up on that podium for the first time without a flutter.

How does one become a member of The Literary Club? The only way is to be nominated by an incumbent, which isn’t as hard as it may sound. In this era of Six Degrees of Separation, one has only to identify a member and evince interest. Once nominated, the candidate would attend Monday gatherings to meet other members and submit to a writing test. He would eventually be voted upon.

Yes, “he.” Is there a possibility that women could be admitted as members one of these days? Probably not. The issue has been addressed at least twice in recent years. While many say the addition would be positive, others feel quite strongly that it would change the club’s chemistry. They point to, among others, the Woman’s Club in Clifton as an example of an organization that’s for women only. The last time a vote was taken, the count was approximately 85 percent against admitting women.

At the end of the day, it’s been my experience that finding prospects who are willing to take on membership is not always easy. Attendance, virtually every Monday night of the school year, is strongly encouraged, and then there are the papers. As one smart lawyer whom I thought would make a good member said to me, “Polk, I’ve written all the term papers I want to write.” Yet somehow candidates continue to surface, as they have for 171 years, and they will, I suspect, keep doing so well into the future.

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