The Indianapolis Literary Club

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Founding of the Club

IN THE MIDDLE SEVENTIES of the nineteenth century, with its pioneer days behind it, the bitter memories of the Civil War beginning to recede, its industries and its cities growing apace, the Middle West acquired some measure of substance and leisure and began to flex its cultural muscles.  Says Arthur W. Shumaker in his A History of Indiana Literature:  "The Golden age of Indiana literature, the fifty year period from 1871 through 1921, was the era during which the most significant writing was produced, the writing for which Hoosier literature is best known and remembered."  A little further on he remarks, "It was the age of famous men and their famous books.  In it Indiana, and particularly Indianapolis, became a literary center which in many ways rivaled the East."

   So, on January 10, 1877, all the omens were propitious for the six citizens of Indianapolis who met at the home of John D. Howland, clerk of the Federal District Court, to organize The Indianapolis Literary Club.  They were in addition to Mr. Howland, the Rev. William Alvin Bartlett, clergyman; George H. Chapman, lawyer; Charles Evans, librarian; William P. Fishback, lawyer; Johnathan W. Gordon, lawyer - three lawyers, a librarian, a clergyman and the clerk of the Federal District Court.  They appointed a committee to draw up a constitution and invited twelve others to join them as charter members.  The eleven who accepted included one clergyman, Hanford A. Edson; four physicians, Albert E. Fletcher, William B. Fletcher, Theophilus Parvin and Luther D. Waterman; three lawyers, Walter Q. Gresham, Livingston Howland and Albert G. Porter; one teacher, J. Henry Kappes; one journalist, John H. Holliday; and one banker, Ebenezer Sharpe.  All names that spelled Indianapolis in all that represented sterling citizenship and enjoyment of the artistic and intellectual.  It was a representative group, similar to the composition of the Club today.  The educators, however, have grown in numbers and influence until with the lawyers they are very nearly the dominating occupations in the Club.

   History is not silent as to who had the original idea for an Indianapolis Literary Club.  If it were, we would be distressed but would accept what Sir Thomas Browne calls "the iniquitous oblivion of time" and forget it.  Unfortunately, history has been unable to make up its mind.  There are no less than three equally acceptable versions.

   The first suggestion for such a club has been attributed to several of the charter members, and at times one or another has been honored as the father of the Club.  Stephen C. Noland referred to an unsigned Indianapolis News account (dated January 7, 1905) that called attention to the upcoming celebration of the Club's twenty-eighth anniversary.  The article stated:  "It is to the late John D. Howland, more than to any other, that the Club owes its existence.  Mr. Howland was for many years the clerk of the United States courts in this city, a quiet man of forceful character, a lover of good books, fond of the society of cultured men.  He organized the Indianapolis Library Association, which was the fore-runner of the present city library, and the books of this institution formed the nucleus of the later institution."

   Theodore L. Sewall read a paper at the Club's tenth anniversary dinner in 1887 that suggested another candidate.  "By a happy coincidence," he said, "we meet tonight on the very date of the first Club meeting ten years ago.   The man who brought about that first meeting was Charles Evans.  It was my fortune to meet Mr. Evans soon after my arrival in this city, ten and a half years ago.  He was then full of his plan for a literary club and told me much about it."

   Finally, there is a third claimant.  At the thirty-third anniversary dinner in 1910, John H. Holliday, a charter member, said in his paper about the Club:  "There were literary clubs in Indianapolis before ours.  The soil was congenial to them, and even long ‘before the war' they sprouted into being, flourished with more or less success, fulfilled some sort of mission and died.  They were the fore-runners, the field preparers.  Into this ground fell the acorn from which sprang the mighty oak of tonight.  Whose idea was it?  Well, probably it was due more to the Rev. William Alvin Bartlett than to any other, though the time was ripe and somebody would have started it if he had not."

   So take your choice, John D. Howland, Charles Evans or Dr. Bartlett.  "It is too much to hope, of course," remarked Stephen C. Noland, "that these men conspired then and there to lay a trap for historians and with quizzical ceremony agreed that in subsequent accounts of the inspiration of the event they would erect three conflicting authorities of great probity, thus weaving about their origin a mystery to confound the historian obliged to rely upon their records more than half a century later."