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Salons: A New Intellectual Culture is Taking Shape Throughout the Country

Amidst the long, drawn-out recovery from the Great Recession, an unprecedented flowering of intellectual life is underway.

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Following the Great War and Palmer Raids, a new generation of sophisticated salons emerged. While the earlier salons were hosted by and welcomed a nearly exclusive white following, those of the Roaring ‘20s were far more radical in term of race and class mixing.

Dorothy Peterson, a black teacher and novelist associated with the “New Negro” movement, hosted regular salons at her father's Brooklyn home. Alexander Gumby, a postal clerk, hosted a salon for African American homosexuals in the arts and their friends at his large studio apartment on Fifth Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets. According to one scholar, “Gumby’s gay literary salon drew many of Harlem’s theatrical and artistic luminaries.”

Carl Van Vechten who is now all but forgotten was, in the ‘20s, considered outlandish, openly breaking with social conventions. While married to a famous Russian ballerina and movie actress, he privately engaged in numerous ostensibly secret sexual liaisons with black and white men. He was famous for hosting mixed-race, mixed-ethnic and mixed-arts salons that were the talk of the ‘20s. One night featured George Gershwin playing show tunes at the piano, followed by Paul Robeson singing Negro spirituals and ending with James Weldon Johnson reciting "Go Down, Death," a funeral sermon. The snide Time magazine reported in 1925, “sullen-mouthed, silky haired author Van Vechten has been playing with Negroes lately, writing prefaces for their poems, having them around the house, going to Harlem.”

Another celebrated New York salon of the Prohibition era was organized by A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of America’s first African-American millionaire, Madam C. J. Walker. It took place at her Harlem townhouse and was known as “The Dark Tower.” It was a venue where uptown and downtown artists, writers and musicians gathered to socialize and exchange ideas. Langston Hughes was a regular who vividly recalled Walker’s salon scene, noting “unless you went early there was no possible way of getting in.” He knew that “her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at rush hour – entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests, with everybody seeming to enjoy the crowding.” As only Hughes could sing, “A’Lelia Walker was the joy-goddess of Harlem’s ‘20s.”

In the decades following the Depression, Second World War and consumer revolution, the New York salon scene waned. In the ‘50s, it shifted to public spaces, most notably the West Village’s Cedar Tavern that welcomed creative voices from Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko to Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). Today, salons and other forms of intellectual get-togethers are back.

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Americans have long gathered to reflect on the important issues of the day. Informally, such get-togethers take place at a family’s dining-room table, among friends sitting on a stoop, or strangers relaxing at a coffee shop or pub. Dinner parties wouldn’t be half-the-fun without the drink-infused, boisterous engagement of the issues of the day.

Social life, however, finds a new articulation when people gather to formally consider a topic. Facilitators, whether individuals on their own or working through a company like Meetup, welcome all manner of personal, intellectual and political discourse. There are science lectures and literary salons, art and music gatherings, nerd-fests on every conceivable tech topic and even foodi sit-downs discussing the pleasures of the pallet while eating and drinking. They are get-togethers for first-time filmmakers, for African-American and Latinos writers, for those following the Jasmine revolution, for anti-nuke activists and, of course, for those into erotica. There’s even one for a German-language salon prompting German culture now in its 60th year.

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