Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Gathering of Posey

On June 30, 1886,approximately sixty men and women interested in the writing profession gathered in the auditorium of Indianapolis’s Plymouth Church. Reporting on the meeting,the Indianapolis Journal noted that “instead of being food for laughter,” the gathering of these would-be poets and novelists turned out to be “a very practical and business-like body.” The Western Association of Writers had been born.

In its approximately twenty-year existence, the W.A.W.—variously referred to as the “Literary Gravel Pit Association,” “The Writer's Singing Bee,” “a literary house party,” “an effort to get up a corner in Spring poetry and fix the price of manuscript stories at so much per year,”and other less than flattering terms by its critics—attracted to its colors such literary stars as Maurice Thompson (who was elected the group’s first president), James Whitcomb Riley, Sarah Bolton, John Clark Ridpath, William Dudley Foulke, Meredith Nicholson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Booth Tarkington, Will Cumback, Mary H. Catherwood, and Benjamin Parker.

The association’s annual week-long conventions at Spring Fountain Park on the shores of Eagle Lake near Warsaw, Indiana, brought together in one spot poets,novelists, short story writers, historians, and others interested in belles lettres. “In the writer’s view, the point of interest lay not so much in the actual literary standards of the organization as in the fact that all kinds of authors who were moved by the literary impulse, flocked together so insistently year after year,” noted Indiana historian George S. Cottman, a longtime W.A.W.member. “It was the gravitating to each other of kindred spirits who in their daily environments, found scant appreciation of the fugitive fancies that haunted them.”

Inspired by the success enjoyed by such Indiana authors as Riley and Thompson, Hoosiers of all types following the Civil War were trying their hand at writing, especially poetry. “There was a time in Indiana when it was difficult to forecast who would next turn poet,” observed Meredith Nicholson in his book, The Hoosiers. One Indianapolis journalist declared that “there had appeared in the community a peculiar crooking of the right elbow and a furtive sliding of the hand into the left inside pocket,which was an unfailing preliminary to the reading of a poem.” Various literary organizations sprang up to minister to those afflicted with the writing bug:the Indianapolis Literary Club in 1877, the Terre Haute Literary Club in 1881,and the Ouiatenon Club (Crawfordsville) in 1883. It was the W. A. W., however,that became, as one historian put it, “intimately connected with the spirit which produced the Golden Age of Indiana literature.”

A Hoosier-dominated institution from its inception, the association’s guiding spirit was Marie L. Andrews of Connersville, who first discussed the idea with J. C. Ochiltree, Indianapolis Herald editor, in the summer of 1885. Ochiltree offered Andrews a list of Herald contributors and also prepared for her a prospectus for a literary organization. That winter, three regular writers for the Herald—Dr. J.N. Matthews, Richard Lew Dawson, and Dr. H. W. Taylor—exchanged correspondence discussing the possibility of calling a “gathering of the poets of the Wabash Valley in some convenient city, or resort, for the purpose of enjoying whatever pleasure might result from a meeting so novel and unique,” remembered Matthews.

Working together, Andrews and Dawson produced a notice, addressed to “The Literary Profession,” which was published on April 3, 1886, in the Chicago Current. The notice called upon “all writers of verse and general literature” to band together to form a new literary association that aimed at discussing “methods of composition, and all topics pertaining to the advancement of literature in America.”

The association’s sponsors received more than one hundred positive responses to their call for action and the first meeting was held in Indianapolis in late June 1886. “In the assembled audience,” wrote a Journal reporter, “was a score or more of persons with enviable reputations as writers, and whose outpourings have graced the pages of volume and magazine, as well as the brighter, but perhaps more evanescent column of the newspaper.”

At the meeting, Thompson was elected as the group’s first president, Andrews as secretary, and Ochiltree as treasurer. A subsequent gathering in October saw the organization adopt both a constitution and a name for itself: the American Association of Writers. Members agreed that the organization’s main mission was to “promote acquaintance and friendship among the literary fraternity, and impart encouragement and enthusiasm to one another.” The association also would work to protect writers against “piratical publishers” and would meet to hear literary work produced by its members.

Speaking at the fall gathering, Thompson warned those in attendance that a meeting involving “literary folk for the purpose of forming a close corporation is, in fact, a pretty good joke, and we ought to be thankful that so little has been said about the fine frenzy of our eyes and the cerulean tinge of our hose. When we come to think about it, we do occupy a doubtful ground, and we must be careful what airs we put on.” Members took their president’s words to heart and, in June 1887, decreased their horizons a bit by changing the organization’s name to the Western Association of Writers, “an appellation,” noted Cottman, “not so inept, since not a few who shared in membership came drifting in from beyond the borders of our state.”

Looking for friendlier surroundings to hold its assemblies, the group found the perfect spot for its artistic endeavors in northern Indiana, at a resort near Warsaw known as Spring Fountain Park Assembly on Eagle Lake (now Winona Lake). “Than this spot with its shady groves of forest trees, it profusion of gushing crystal waters, its limpid lake, and withal, its ample hotel and auditorium accommodations, nothing could be more inviting as an Arcadian setting where poets and birds alike might sing their melodious lays,” said Cottman.

From the first, the new surroundings for its annual gathering proved to be a boon for the W.A.W.Taking advantage of special rates offered by the Big Four Railroad Company,members competed for available spaces in the Eagle Lake Hotel (with room rates at $1.25 to $1.50 per day) and in nearby towns. During the morning and evening,those attending the convention listened to poems, stories, and addresses by fellow members while the afternoon, as the convention program stated, “will be given to recreation and social enjoyments,” which included boating, fishing,and swimming.

Cottman had found memories of the association’s conventions, recalling “long sunny June afternoons when earth and sky and sparkling waters were at their best, and our genial fraternity surrendered itself to sweet-do-nothing.” Usually, the W.A.W. had the hotel mainly to itself and its members could explore the “nooks and byways of the shady grounds” tot heir hearts content, Cottman remembered.

The association’s most successful conventions were those that featured its most celebrated member: Riley. “When word got around he[Riley] would be up for the annual jam session,” said James Weygand in his history of the association, “its success was almost assured. Everyone knew he’d be on the program for a poem or two, and that he could be coaxed into a couple more.

Riley’s patronage helped keep interest high at the association’s early conventions, but, with his increasing popularity keeping Riley away, attendance dropped considerably as the organization moved into the new century. The aging of the W.A.W.’s founders and low annual dues ($2 per year) were also factors that helped to speed the association’s downfall. In 1904 an attempt was made to revive the moribund organization by Opie Reed, a leading figure in the Chicago Press Club. On December 16, 1904, the club sponsored a reception honoring “that great organization of writers which has taken so prominent a place in the literature of the west.” Although the Chicago group brought new blood into the W. A. W., it could not breathe new life into the once flourishing organization and it quietly disbanded.

Discerning the association’s effect on the state’s literary history is a difficult task. In its two decades of existence, it did produce a few volumes containing the work presented at the group’s annual convention. Its greatest contribution, however, came through the association’s ability to provide a needed spark to the creative process for hundreds of writers in Indiana and the Midwest. There was, as Cottman noted, “nothing else in existence quite like it.” Even if the organization rested not on “solid accomplishments as on the little vanities of would-be writers,” the fact remains, he continued, that the association stood as “an integral part of our literary history.”