A History of the Society of Midland Authors, Part 2

Part 2: Getting Organized

BY ROBERT LOERZEL

As the Society of Midland Authors celebrates its 100th birthday, we present a history of the organization, starting with this look at its origins. (Click here for details on our May 1-2 centennial events.

Continued from Part 1.

The authors who gathered at the Auditorium Hotel in Chicago on November 28, 1914, didn’t expect a free dinner. But they were somewhat stunned when the writer who’d invited them, John M. Stahl, picked up the tab for everyone.

“That someone should actually feed authors, free, was so remarkable that Wallace Rice arose and announced that he had not believed it until that moment, but he had eaten a good dinner and had not received a slip inviting payment, and now his soul was ready to depart in peace, or words to that effect,” Stahl, who was president of Farmers National Life Insurance Company, recalled in his memoir. [1]

Stahl had gathered these writers—including Harriet Monroe, Hamlin Garland, Vachel Lindsay and Edith Wyatt—because he wanted to create a literary group focused on Illinois. “The principal object of the society is to make Illinois authors personally acquainted with each other,” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported. [2] It was a daylong gathering, starting with a meeting and luncheon at 10 A.M. at the City Club, hosted by another group Stahl was involved with, the Writers’ Guild of Chicago. In the afternoon, the authors went to the Cliff Dwellers for tea and a reception, and then they finally went to the Auditorium for dinner. [3]

An illustration from the November 29, 1914, Chicago Daily Tribune.
An illustration from the November 29, 1914, Chicago Daily Tribune.

‘Feelings ran high’

“Feelings ran high about the constant drain of talent which New York was taking from us,” playwright Alice Gerstenberg later recalled. “It was thought that some gatherings of home writers could promote mutual inspiration and a bond for remaining.” [4]

“I wanted to get in touch with a writer who had written a story in one of the New York magazines,” author Edwin Balmer told the Tribune. “I wrote to him in care of the magazine at New York. When he got the letter I found that he lived just two blocks from me, around the corner. This organization won’t mean that editors are going to be flooded with stories written about Illinois. It’s a wrong idea to suggest that Illinois writers write exclusively about Illinois. They ought not to, unless they have a good story about Illinois. But it is true that people are getting tired of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in their literature. Most of the Illinois people who make their living by writing write of the west.”

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Stahl wanted to see more literary events in Chicago, but Balmer said, “I do not believe that this society will make the mistake of New York literary societies of meeting too often. There the authors are constantly exchanging ideas and write, usually, of the same things.” [5]

The Great War—which came to be known as World War I—had broken out in Europe a few months earlier. “It is the twilight of the kings,” a somber editorial in the Tribune declared. Monroe was considering whether she should suspend publication of Poetry, the groundbreaking magazine she edited, during “this sordid interruption of man’s finer activities and aspirations.” In a letter, Ezra Pound told her “the War is eating up everybody’s subconscious energy.” In spite of all the grim news, Monroe kept working on her magazine. [6]

And the committee of authors (including Monroe) brought got to work. Stahl was not able to attend the next meeting, on December 9, where Garland insisted that the new group should include authors from a bigger region rather than focusing strictly on Illinois. He showed his famous passion when he spoke.

‘We resolved ourselves into a Society of Midland Authors’

“Bent upon broadening Mr. Stahl’s parochial idea, this doughty champion of the Middle West orated unabatingly 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,” Hobart Chatfield-Taylor recalled. “Indeed, without any of us knowing precisely how it happened, we authors of the Commonwealth of Illinois … became so fired by Mr. Garland’s enthusiasm that we resolved ourselves into a Society of Midland Authors, pledged to recruit our ranks to full war strength from those of our fellow craftsmen in eleven other states of the Union.” [7]

The minutes of the meeting reported: “The committee … was of the unanimous opinion that a distinctive literature was not a matter of State lines.” The committee approved a motion by Douglas Malloch—seconded by Garland—to cover twelve states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. [8]

William Allen White. Source: Wikipedia
William Allen White. Source: Wikipedia

According to the Tribune, one of the arguments for expanding the group’s scope was a desire to include “those bubbling wells of literature, Indiana and Kansas.” In particular, the organizers wanted to include William Allen White (1868-1944), the longtime editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette, whose widely quoted editorials earned him the nickname the “Sage of Emporia” and turned him into a spokesman for middle America; and James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), the best-selling “Hoosier Poet” who was famous for “Little Orphant Annie” and “The Raggedy Man.” [9]

According to the minutes: “The committee feels that effort should be made to recognize and preserve the special midland quality, and that association and acquaintance will tend toward that end.”

Who was eligible for membership? “Any writer resident within the twelve states who is the author of a book of poetry, fiction, history, biography or criticism, published in the regular course of trade, or who is the author of a play produced by professional players on a public stage.” [10]

The Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune commented: “It must have been published in the regular course of trade, as the authors don’t want any get-rich-quick folks horning in by publishing a book at their expense and clambering among the immortals. A position in the society can be smudged only with ink; it cannot have the taint of pork, or soap, or trade.” [11]

Garland made a motion to call this new group the Society of Midland Authors. Wyatt seconded the motion, and the committee approved it. [12]

Why ‘Midland’?

Why “Midland” instead of “Midwest” or “Middle West”? Chatfield-Taylor later claimed credit for choosing the term. “Being temperamentally adverse to the term ‘Middle West,’ I mildly suggested the word ‘Midland’ between flights of Mr. Garland’s eloquence,” he remembered. [13] Gerstenberg recalled that Chatfield-Taylor “was elected the first president after a serious debate in which he protested against the use of the word ‘Midwest’ for authors and the term ‘Midland’ was chosen.” [14] But in his 1930 memoir, Stahl said he’d come up with the Society of Midland Authors name earlier. [15] And Garland claimed he’d coined the name. [16] One member who objected to it was Emerson Hough, whom Stahl described as “100% American.” Hough thought “Midland” evoked England rather than America, according to Stahl. [17]

map

The organizing committee also defined the new Society’s mission: “a closer association among the writers of the Middle West, a stimulation of creative literary effort and the establishment of a library of books and manuscripts” by the region’s authors. [18] On January 19, 1915, the Christian Science Monitor reported: “Besides the desire to foster the Midland in literature, the society has other aims—more intimate relationship between publishers, editors and among themselves—but the chronicling of the Midland will remain uppermost.” [19]

Stahl disagreed with the decision to include authors from the eleven states beyond Illinois. Describing what happened in his absence at that committee meeting, Stahl’s memoir included the heading: “A MISTAKE IS MADE.” [20]

‘Mr. Garland fled precipitously’

Hamlin Garland
Hamlin Garland

Despite the leading role Garland played in setting up the Society, he promptly did just the sort of thing this new group was designed to discourage: He moved to New York. “After thus upsetting Mr. Stahl’s good intention, Mr. Garland fled precipitously to effete Manhattan, where in all but sentiment he has ceased to be a Midland Author,” Chatfield-Taylor wrote. [21]

Garland had been planning the move for months. His father had died, giving him less reason to remain in the Midwest. “I began at once to think very definitely of taking my family to New York City, where most of my literary friends lived and from which all my income was derived,” he later recalled. “…It may be counted as a weakness, but I was no longer content to live the life of a literary pioneer.”

When Garland asked another leading Chicago author, Henry Blake Fuller, whether he should move to New York, Fuller replied, “Why stay in this town if you can get out of it? No writer can earn a living here except on the newspapers. If I could get away, I would go to Italy and never return.”

Garland then said, “For the sake of my wife and children I must get out of my rut.”

At that committee meeting in December 1914, Garland told Chatfield-Taylor: “Some time Chicago will be an important literary center, but not in your time or mine. Without a first-class publishing house or magazine, how can it hold its writers and artists?”

“It can’t and won’t!” Chatfield-Taylor replied, according to Garland.

In his journal, Garland wrote that he’d felt “only half hearted” about his efforts to set up this new Society. “It is all rather pitiful to me, now that I am set free to go East,” Garland mused. “Fine and earnest as most of our Midland authors are, they form only a small nucleus in the midst of a ramshackle, ripping, roaring metropolis. Only the paragraphers, reporters, and poets of the daily press are able to survive in this bleak and noisy town.” Garland quit his post as president of the Cliff Dwellers and moved to his new home in New York City in early January 1915. [22]

‘A most interesting young organization’

The Society of Midland Authors held its first meeting, voting itself into existence, at 3:25 P.M. on April 24, 1915, in Club Room No. 1 of the Auditorium Hotel. [23] The next day, the Chicago Tribune reported on the group’s formation, calling it “a most interesting young organization.” [24] And the Bismarck Tribune reported: “The society is new but it includes practically all of the men and women ‘who have really stood up, head and shoulders, over the ruck in recent American literature.’” The authors composed a little ode for the occasion, which was printed in that North Dakota newspaper. It probably wouldn’t have passed muster as a submission to Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine:

We authors write the books ourselves,
The printer supplies ’em.
The dealer puts ’em on his shelves—
God bless the man who buys ’em! [25]

Garland was back in Chicago for a visit, and he gave a speech that night when the newborn Society held a banquet at the Auditorium, with Randall Parrish as toastmaster. The other speakers were Malloch, Hough, Zona Gale, Edna Ferber and Clarence Darrow. [26]

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April 24, 1915, meeting minutes, Society of Midland Authors Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Folder 48.

Garland’s friends accused him of abandoning Chicago. “There was nothing for me to say in reply to this, for each time I return I feel more keenly than ever the fact that my life in Chicago is almost rural by contrast with my life in New York,” Garland wrote in his journal. “My Chicago home is comfortable, my way of life peaceful and easy, but I am walking in a circle. I am making no progress. There are no surprises here, no stimulation to effort. If I were forced to live here I fear I should very soon cease to produce anything at all. No doubt this is a sign of weakness, but such is my psychology.” [27]

But Garland stood up for the Midland in comments to the Bismarck Tribune. “Practically all of the stuff written in recent years, which can classify as literature has been dripped or pounded out up in these old states of Illinois, Kansas, the Dakotas, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana,” Garland said. “The stuff is printed in New York—but that is all.” [28]

As Gerstenberg later recalled, Garland “hied himself to New York and we never saw him again.” [29] But he did earn a spot on the list of the SMA’s charter members, and he stayed a member for a couple of years. [30] His autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border, was published in 1917, followed by a sequel, A Daughter of the Middle Border, which won a Pulitzer in 1922.

sonofthemiddleborder

“He never should have emigrated to the East,” Stahl wrote in his memoir. “Hamlin Garland has written best when he wrote of the West or with the West in his heart. He is of the West, no matter where he may live. I am bold to say that I think no one else has so well written of certain Midland people.” [31]

Garland moved to Hollywood, California, in 1929, and died in 1940, writing in his later years about psychic phenomena, claiming that he’d encountered spirits: “They jest with me about their occupations. They laugh at my doubts, quite in character. They touch me with their hands.” [32] Garland’s papers are in the University of Southern California Library’s Special Collections. [33]

James Whitcomb Riley. Source: poetryfoundation.org
James Whitcomb Riley. Source: poetryfoundation.org

The Society chose James Whitcomb Riley as its first “honorary president,” although the Indiana folk poet was too ill to attend SMA events in Chicago. A letter from Riley was read aloud at the Society’s first luncheon, in May at the Hotel La Salle: “You do me great honor in choosing me to head the Society of Midland Authors, an honor I dearly appreciate in view of the fact that we ‘westerners,’ more than all others, must now compose the mainstay of our country’s old ideals—the simple and lovable virtues which have been our blessed American heritage. And so, in expressing appreciation to you, I want to emphasize the high, yet lowly, mission that is ours.” [34] Riley was so revered that when he died in 1916, all the schools in his home state shut down out of respect. [35] “He was very much interested in the SMA and aided materially in developing it, notwithstanding his ill health,” Stahl later wrote. [36]

The first president

Hobart Chatfield-Taylor. Society of Midland Authors Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago Library. Folder 52.
Hobart Chatfield-Taylor. Society of Midland Authors Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago Library. Folder 52.

Chatfield-Taylor became the Society’s first president. Gerstenberg believed that Chatfield-Taylor was “a natural and shrewd choice” for the job. “It is quite likely that when he was chosen president some of the writers would have preferred an author without social background,” she wrote. “At that time there was an undercurrent of radicalism against any person of such position, a resentment from men of the Press or from a writer whose only recognition came from the skill of his pen. The suspicion was that if you had any connection with wealth or family prestige your writing just couldn’t be good.” But Chatfield-Taylor had proved himself with his writing, she said. [37]

“Though a man of wealth and a social leader in Chicago, Hobart worked with amazing pertinacity at his desk,” Garland observed. [38]

“Few of the authors I have met are as interesting, instructive talkers as Chatfield-Taylor,” Stahl commented. “Not many have traveled as extensively or observed as intelligently and diligently; not many have met as many eminent people—eminent in widely different fields; and he is full of positive opinions which he expresses in language equally positive, spiced with witticisms and kindly irony. He has all that is required of the captain of a football team; but he has a dislike, amounting to positive hatred, I am sure, of physical exertion. His ample face proclaims goodwill and hospitality; and he has enriched his life by having often at his board authors and painters and singers of note. I am sure that not a dozen Americans know as many foreign authors; and he has a wide acquaintance among foreign statesmen.” [39]

In 1915, 1916 and 1917, Chatfield-Taylor hosted the Society of Midland Authors at Fairlawn, his estate in the northern suburb of Lake Forest, on one June afternoon each year. [40] He’d married into possession of the Farwell family’s mansion, which stood along a hundred-foot-high bluff—the tallest point along Lake Michigan’s shore in Illinois—on picturesque grounds laid out by the renowned landscape artist Frederick Law Olmsted. Chatfield-Taylor had introduced golf to Lake Forest in 1893, setting up a seven-hole course on the estate; it later became the Onwentsia Club at a permanent location. [41]

“And that first summer the Chatfield-Taylors invited us for an alfresco supper at Fairlawn, their pleasing, old-fashioned house and lawn, shaded by very old trees on a bluff of the lake,” Gerstenberg recalled. “We all went to Lake Forest on the same train and I remember feeling shy and unacquainted until Lillian Bell and Mary Donahey reached out their wings. I was impressed by the portrait-appearance of Rose Chatfield-Taylor as she graciously greeted us with a suave smile. She wore a large floppy hat and a flowing summer dress with a ribbon somewhere which tied into the blue of her gorgeous eyes. However she might have felt about entertaining this new band of writers Hobart had collected, she came along with the idea that he should fraternize.” [42]

The outing included a polo game and a dramatic performance at the Aldis Playhouse, which was run by SMA member Mary Reynolds Aldis (1872-1949) and her husband, Arthur. Reporting on this field trip, the Chicago Tribune sardonically observed: “many non-authors are sharpening their plowshares and pruning shears into pens in the hopes of some day qualifying for membership in this redoubtable and interesting society.” [43]

Part 3 will profile early members of the SMA.

Sources

1 — John M. Stahl, Growing With the West: The Story of a Busy, Quiet Life (London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1930), 423.

2 — “Illini Authors Unite to Rival Hoosier Claims,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 29, 1914.

3 — November 28, 1914, meeting minutes, Society of Midland Authors Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Folder 48.

4 — Alice Gerstenberg, “Come Back With Me,” unpublished memoir, Chicago History Museum manuscripts collection, 264.

5 — “Illini Authors Unite to Rival Hoosier Claims,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 29, 1914.

6 — Finis Farr, Chicago: A Personal History of America’s Most American City (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973), 326-327.

7 — Hobart C. Chatfield-Taylor, “Historical Sketch,” from SMA Yearbook for 1930 and other early years.

8 — December 9, 1914, meeting minutes, Society of Midland Authors Collection, Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Folder 48.

9 — Chicago Daily Tribune, April 25, 1915.

10 — December 9, 1914, meeting minutes.

11 — Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, May 16, 1915.

12 — December 9, 1914, meeting minutes.

13 — Chatfield-Taylor, “Historical Sketch.”

14 — Gerstenberg, “Come Back With Me,” 264.

15 — Stahl, Growing With the West, 424.

16 — Hamlin Garland, My Friendly Contemporaries: A Literary Log (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932), 29.

17 — Stahl, Growing With the West, 424.

18 — December 9, 1914, meeting minutes.

19 — Christian Science Monitor, January 19, 1915, quoted in Stahl, Growing With the West, 427.

20 — Stahl, Growing With the West, 423.

21 — Chatfield-Taylor, “Historical Sketch.”

22 — Garland, My Friendly Contemporaries, 24-32.

23 — April 24, 1915, meeting minutes, SMA Collection, UIC.

24 — Chicago Daily Tribune, April 25, 1915.

25 — Bismarck Tribune, May 16, 1915.

26 — Chicago Examiner, April 25, 1915.

27 — Garland, My Friendly Contemporaries, 57.

28 — Bismarck Tribune, May 16, 1915.

29 — Gerstenberg, “Come Back With Me,” 265.

30 — SMA yearbooks, SMA Collection, UIC.

31 — Stahl, Growing With the West, 371.

32 — Spiritual Resources website. http://www.spiritualistresources.com/cgi-bin/great/index.pl?read=98

33 — University of Southern California Library’s Special Collections. http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf4r29p0q5/entire_text/

34 — “Riley Thanks Authors for Distinction Given Him,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 30, 1915.

35 — R. Craig Sautter, “SMA’s First 90 Years: Notes From the Archives,” Literary License, June 2005.

36 — “A Reader’s Notes,” Indianapolis Star, August 20, 1923.

37 — Gerstenberg, “Come Back With Me,” 266-267.

38 — Garland, My Friendly Contemporaries, 30.

39 — Stahl, Growing With the West, 390-391.

40 — Invitations, SMA Collection, UIC.

41 — Arthur Miller, “Lake Forest Country Places: Fairlawn, Part 1,” Donnelley and Lee Library Archives and Special Collections at Lake Forest website, May 6, 1995. http://www.lakeforest.edu/library/archives/lf-country-places/fair1.php

42 — Gerstenberg, “Come Back With Me,” 267-268.

43 — “News of Chicago Society,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 20, 1915.