Yellow fever may not be the timeliest of topics. But 18 members of Jacksonville’s Literary Union paid close attention on a recent Monday evening as Dr. Frank Barnes Norbury talked about the disease’s more gruesome attributes (such as its characteristic “coffee ground” vomit) and its place in history — notably, the outbreak during the construction of the Panama Canal and the discovery by U.S. Army surgeon Dr. Walter Reed that mosquitoes spread yellow fever.
Yellow fever may not be the timeliest of topics.
But 18 members of Jacksonville’s Literary Union paid close attention on a recent Monday evening as Dr. Frank Barnes Norbury talked about the disease’s more gruesome attributes (such as its characteristic “coffee ground” vomit) and its place in history — notably, the outbreak during the construction of the Panama Canal and the discovery by U.S. Army surgeon Dr. Walter Reed that mosquitoes spread yellow fever.
Afterward, some members talked about their own inoculations against yellow fever, still prevalent and taken seriously in parts of Africa, or about curious concoctions they’d taken as preventatives during service overseas. Some remembered their childhood admiration for Reed, and for scientist Jesse William Lazear, whose efforts to study how the disease is spread cost him his life.
The evening, with its serious scholarship, discussion and camaraderie, wasn’t unlike those gatherings Literary Union members have shared over the past 145 years.
Even with that prodigious history, Literary Union is one of Jacksonville’s junior literary societies. A group called The Club was founded months after the opening salvo of the Civil War.
For a variety of reasons, literary societies elsewhere may have gone the way of stock portfolios. But people in Jacksonville still take them seriously. In addition to The Club and Literary Union for men, there are six women’s literary societies and seven alone on the campus of Illinois College, the state’s oldest college.
Long gone are cigar smoke-filled rooms and elaborate dinners. Topics have evolved from “Are Theatrical Entertainments Demoralizing?” to “Intelligent Design.”
But literary society members still believe in their purposes.
“What keeps the group going is a quest for learning,” says Allen Yow, an attorney at Rammelkamp Bradney and president of Literary Union.
Membership has its privileges
Call it snootiness, but societies such as The Club and Literary Union cap membership in addition to being single-sex groups. Getting voted in has to be by nomination, and the vote must be unanimous.
The societies attract mostly professionals and academicians, many of whom work at IC and MacMurray College. With a number of other state institutions in the Morgan County town — the Illinois School for the Deaf, the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired and the Jacksonville Developmental Center — and a rich history tied to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, many believe Jacksonville is ripe to continue to support its literary society tradition.
Others counter that modern technology and visual entertainment could thwart the highbrow scholarship that has been the societies’ hallmark. Or that would-be members could opt out in favor of shrinking leisure time.
“To be an educated person, you have to work at it,” Yow says.
Tracking the rise and fall of American literary societies is not easy.
The Demosthenian Literary Society at the University of Georgia is helping build a database of existing and defunct societies on American college campuses (two defunct groups are credited to McKendree College in Lebanon near St. Louis). But that list does not include groups that are not part of a college.
European countries are better about keeping track of past and present societies. But they also include what in the United States would be considered professional societies, such as groups made up of psychologists who use the society to keep up with the latest research in their field.
The societies’ formats are simple: A presentation — usually an original research project or a commentary on a book or current event — is given, and each member makes brief comments or critiques. Traditionally, the president’s is the last response given. The presenter then ends by addressing critiques or answering questions.
“It is wonderful to be able to turn everything off and get into a wonderful literary pursuit,” says Doris Broehl Hopper, associate dean emeritus of communications and theatre at IC, who will present on science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke at Sorosis, Jacksonville’s oldest women’s literary society.
While some women’s societies adopt themes for a year, The Club and Literary Union rely on the presenters’ expertise and imagination. Topics during the Literary Union’s 2005-06 year, for example, included Theodore Roosevelt’s adventures, the unexplored areas of the Amazon, horseback-riding preacher the Rev. Peter Cartwright of Illinois, and a review of a book by former President Jimmy Carter.
Appreciating the past, looking to the future
By the mid-18th century, such societies, with an emphasis on debate and oratorical acumen, flourished at East Coast universities, including Yale. The “Yale Bands” that thrust westward, establishing institutions of higher learning, founded Illinois College in 1829.
Two of IC’s men’s literary societies, Sigma Pi and Phi Alpha, predate The Club’s founding in 1861. (Three-time presidential candidate and IC graduate William Jennings Bryan was a “Sig.”)
But by the mid-1870s, many college-based societies had lost prominence. Historians point toward the burgeoning Greek fraternity systems and intercollegiate athletics, as well as “liberation from the straitjacket of scholasticism,” professor Walter Hendricksen wrote in his history of The Club and Literary Union.
Literary societies may have a talon-hold on Jacksonville because of the two colleges.
“When you have two colleges and three state institutions, you have a community of people who have interest in the world around them,” says Iver Yeager, a professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at IC and a 50-year member of The Club. “That’s helped.”
But the Rev. John Kay, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, says the city also has a great appreciation for history — it had one of the state’s first historical societies — that endures today.
“It’s the quintessential middle America city,” says Kay, a Literary Union member.
While not fierce rivals — Yeager says ribbing between The Club and Literary Union is “good-natured” and the two actually have an annual joint meeting dating back to 1954 — they both vie for new members — “new energy,” as Club president David Truesdell puts it.
“It’s not quite as exclusive as it was 50 years ago,” Truesdell says. “It’s not a closely-held secret.”
Adds Allen Yow: “I suspect the average person wouldn’t know what we are. We’re not a public club. A good deal of the professional community is probably aware of our existence.”
Professor Robert Seufert of MacMurray College argues that the societies’ founding characteristics — debate, an embrace of the democratic process and an acknowledgement of different points of view — are the same that shaped the country’s founding.
“Now we’ve become much more partisan,” says Seufert, who teaches English and is a member of The Club.
But “anti-intellectualism” and a lack of “porch culture” — conversation among neighbors — make Seufert and others wonder if such societies will appeal to the next generation.
“It’s a different age now,” Kay says. “We’re more willing to settle for sound bites than debate in a civil manner.”
“It’s like teaching,” Seufert says. “Sometimes you go into the classroom and it’s an uphill battle. Is it worth it? I do think there’s a need for it. In the end, you do what you do because you believe it needs to be done.
“I think it’s worth propagating. It promotes the health of the community. It’s a good thing to be part (of the literary society) that gives you that mental flexibility, and it acquaints you with a part of the world you may not be familiar with.”
Steven Spearie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jacksonville literary societies (with founding dates)
* The Club (1861)
* Literary Union (1864)
* Sorosis (1868)
* Jacksonville Household Science Club (1885)
* Wednesday Class (1887)
* College Hill Club (1888)
* Monday Conversation Club (1888)
* History Class (founded in 1896 as University Extension Club; re-founded as History Class in 1901.)
Illinois College’s literary societies (with founding dates)
* Sigma Pi (1843)
* Phi Alpha (1845)
* Gamma Nu (1897)
* Pi Pi Rho (1929)
* Gamma Delta (1911)
* Sigma Phi Epsilon (1916)
* Chi Beta (1920)