The Society of Midland Authors turns 100 years old in 1915. As we celebrate our centennial, we’ll publish stories about our history here on the Society of Midland Authors Books Blog.
Here’s a story about the Society’s history by Richard Frisbie, a past SMA president who has remained active in our group, currently serving as our recording secretary. This article originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, January 23, 2000, when the SMA was a mere 85 years old, and it still serves as a great summary of what the Society is all about.
Midland Authors: A sense of self
By Richard Frisbie
In a small meeting room at Chicago’s historic Cliff Dwellers, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Scott Turow are describing the experience of writing a blockbuster best-seller.
As literary celebrities, they could have expected to fill a sizable hall, not just in Chicago but anywhere, including New York (a point for further discussion). Instead, they are content to share their experiences with a group of fellow members of the Society of Midland Authors, plus a few strangers who happened to see a tiny notice of the meeting in the newspaper.
The scene is one that has been repeated for 85 years in Chicago, as published authors have assembled to commiserate with each other about the insensitivity of publishers and agents, and other matters of mutual interest, including — as Turow puts it — the “loneliness of being locked in a room with a pencil.”
While countless press clubs and other literary organizations have come and gone over the years in Chicago, the Society of Midland Authors has endured. It holds cozy meetings (open to the public) with authors like Mitchard and Turow, and distributes awards to authors of Midwestern books at an annual dinner.
Award winners often comment they particularly cherish the awards because they come from fellow authors. As dinner speaker one year, Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow reminisced about surviving the Depression thanks to the Federal Writers’ Program. He judged correctly that the topic of making a living as a writer during hard times would enthrall an audience of authors.
Ken Burns’ recent TV documentary on New York City reported that New Yorkers decided early in their history to treat the rest of the country like a suburb. This attitude grated on Midwesterners as much in 1915 as it does now. Midwestern writers envied the meetings, luncheons, dinners and exhibitions in the East that allowed authors and artists to meet each other and exchange ideas.
Hamlin Garland, a future Pulitzer Prize winner, was a vice president of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, which he had helped found. In 1913 the Institute decided to hold its annual meeting in Chicago with Garland in charge of the arrangements. He wrote to 17 local clubs and educational organizations, asking them to form a reception committee, which elected a writer named Hobart C. Chatfield-Taylor as chairman.
The group, which included prominent Chicago businessmen, subscribed funds to provide special sleeping cars for painters, sculptors, composers — and writers — who rolled west on what certain provincial Easterners termed “a missionary expedition to Darkest Illinois.”
John M. Stahl, a writer remembered less for his books than for being a driving force in launching the Society, recalled in a 1930 memoir that “it was rare that a foreign author of note came farther west than Niagara Falls.”
Plenty of stimulation offered itself locally in those days if someone would organize it. Vachel Lindsay liked to boomlay-boomlay-boomlay-boom his poem, “The Congo,” in a sonorous voice. Ring Lardner was composing the best dialogue in American literature in stories like “The Immigrunts.” (“‘Are you lost, Daddy?’ I asked tenderly. ‘Shut up,’ he explained.”)
Harriet Monroe was launching Poetry magazine and publishing poems like Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago” (“Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat…”).
In 1914, Stahl, with the counsel of Chatfield-Taylor and others, invited a group of Illinois authors to dinner at the Auditorium Hotel. Stahl, who was also president of a large insurance company, picked up the tab. At a second meeting, which Stahl couldn’t attend, Garland modified the organizational structure Stahl had originally proposed, “much for the worse,” Stahl later grumbled. Chatfield-Taylor recalled that Garland “orated unabatedly until the domain of the proposed society had been so extended as to include within it all that vast region of the land lying north of the Ohio River and between the Alleghenies and the Rockies.” Opinion differed on which of the leaders first proposed the word “Midland” to describe it.
It all came together in 1915. The Society of Midland Authors was officially launched by a group of more than 50 authors who included George Ade, Mary Hastings Bradley, Clarence Darrow, Edna Ferber, Hamlin Garland, Emerson Hough, Vachel Lindsay, Harriet Monroe, Howard Vincent O’Brien, James Whitcomb Riley and William Allen White. Quick to join the new organization were other authors whose names are still familiar: Jane Addams, Edgar A. Guest, Ring Lardner, Edgar Lee Masters, John T. McCutcheon, Gene Stratton Porter, Lew Sarett, Walter Dill Scott, Vincent Starrett, Lorado Taft and Brand Whitlock.
Local and national newspapers took note of the new organization. The Christian Science Monitor said: “Besides the desire to foster the Midland in literature, the Society has other aims — more intimate relationships between publishers, editors and among themselves — but the chronicling of the Midland will remain uppermost.”
Crediting Stahl with sparking the idea of an authors’ organization, Chatfield-Taylor wrote, “None but a bold man would have sought to weld such individualistic — dare I say egotistic? — creatures as authors into a society of any sort.”
Despite the misgivings of Chatfield-Taylor and Stahl, the society took on a form that has lasted. Published authors residing in the 12 “Midland” states are invited to join when the board of directors become aware of a book that demonstrates “literary style.” Playwrights become eligible with a professional production of their work.
It turned out that at least some writers enjoy each other’s company. While Stahl was president, from 1920 to 1922, the Society held at least 25 literary luncheons and dinners. The Chicago Examiner covered one and commented (March 1, 1922) on its “customary brilliance.”
The Society’s programs are still stimulating. Authors sip their wine as Turow, low-key outside the courtroom, recounts that when he was an assistant U.S. attorney working on the Greylord bribery scandal in Chicago he was so wrought up he wasn’t sleeping well at night. Finally, his wife, Annette, raised herself up on one elbow and said, “Quit that goddamn job.”
He didn’t just then, but he started plugging away at Presumed Innocent, 20 minutes every day, on his laptop computer while commuting on the train. Eventually, he did resign as a prosecutor, and before joining a law firm wrote full time for two or three months to finish the book. As soon as publishers saw the manuscript, they fought over it. It took only three weeks to sell the movie rights.
With a friendly smile and the personal charm readers detect in her syndicated newspaper column, Jacquelyn Mitchard describes herself as a “working mom.” Her late husband died of cancer and left her at age 40 with four children. She recalls that when the Oprah Winfrey Show phoned to arrange for The Deep End of the Ocean to be the first book featured by Oprah’s TV book club, she thought it was a gag. They had to call three times before she would talk to them. (Fellow authors listening resolved not to keep Oprah waiting when she calls them.)
There is still a literary life outside New York. As Publishers Weekly, the trade journal of the book industry, commented, the Society of Midland Authors gives Midwestern authors a sense of self despite their distance from the publishing centers in New York. “Like the mighty University of Chicago, they feel no need to be Harvard.”
But it must be recorded that Hamlin Garland, having changed the initial course of the society and having been chosen as president, was replaced by Chatfield-Taylor before his inauguration. Garland had packed up his family and moved to New York.