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

Have you been to a salon? I don’t mean where you get a manicure or pedicure. Rather, a social venue where people gather to consider pressing social issues or compelling ideas?

Amidst the long, drawn-out recovery from the Great Recession, a new intellectual culture is taking shape throughout the country. While corporate executives bemoan the financial fate of newspaper, magazine and book publishing (to say nothing of the record and movie industries), an unprecedented flowering of intellectual life is underway. It signals a rebirth of ideas in America.

This new intellectual environment takes two principal forms, online and public. Online has gotten the most attention given the explosion of web publishing. While the Internet is cluttered with an infinity of garbage, it does provide invaluable access to versions of mainstream and alternative print outlets, innumerable web-only ventures and zillions of “self-published” commentary identified as personal websites, blogs, YouTube rants, Facebook postings and Tweets. The Internet is home to a new intellectual culture.

Less discussed are the efforts by people to reclaim public space for discussion and social engagement over ideas. America has long cultivated public venues that fostered social gatherings and intellectual discourse, whether libraries, “Ys,” fraternal meeting halls, labor unions, senior centers or local bookstores. They have welcomed Americans for decades and still draw loyal followers.

Something different has emerged over the last decade or so, one recalling the great era of salons that occurred during the early decades of the 20th century. This something new grows out of the coffee shop phenomenon commercialized by Starbucks and Peets. While superficially recalling the good-old coffee houses of the counterculture ‘60s, they lack the fun, live music or politics of the days gone by.

Nevertheless, these coffee shops established public spaces for strangers to get together and, more than anything else, to encourage flirting and casual hook-ups. Some of the more enterprising venues have pushed the boundaries of social commerce and welcomed, at off-hours, presentations by poets, writers and filmmakers in an effort to fill the venue and sell product.

More significant, Move-On incubated a decidedly self-conscious spirit of political discussion. Founded in 1998 by well-intentioned online activities, it played an invaluable role mobilizing grassroots support for Obama and the Democrats in the 2008 campaign. In 2010, it organized hundreds of “Rock the House (and Senate)” house parties. Obama’s effort to recapture his base for the 2012 election will likely revitalize MoveOn and its grassroots efforts.

At earlier gatherings, local Move-On affiliates welcomed groups of interested people to their homes or to public venues like arts or seniors center. These gatherings ranged from telephone-organizing drives, discussions of a pre-identified topic (e.g., healthcare, Congressional corruption) or the viewing and discussion of videos. Some draw only a dozen local activities, while others welcoming more than a hundred people, they fostered that informal camaraderie missing from large demonstrations.

Sensing the growing popularity of social gatherings, opportunistic entrepreneurs quickly jumped into the game. Meetup was the first, founded in 2001, and remains the leader; it got into politics backing Howard Dean’s failed 2004 presidential ambition. Other social facilitators include BigTent and GroupSpaces; however, online social networking capabilities offered through FaceBook, Twitter or Craigslist allow essentially everyone to convene a get-together.

For all the cautionary tales of cyber-stupidity and Internet solipsism spouted by media pundits, people in New York, San Francisco and other cities are attending intellectual get-togethers at unprecedented numbers. Yes, everyone feels overwhelmed, whether by mounting bills, political uncertainty or natural disasters. Yet, more and more people are drawn to public venues of discourse and conviviality to think, engage with others, flirt, organized political actions and add something meaningful to their lives. They are 21st century version of the classic salon, venues where ideas matter.

* * *

Today’s intellectual gatherings take a variety of forms, from formal library lectures, to Meetups to informal get-togethers at friends’ homes. In New York, they draw their inspiration from the celebrated salons of the fin-de-siècle period.

Salons date from the nation’s founding. Histories of the Founding Fathers would be incomplete without reference to Benjamin Franklin’s sinful indulgences attending the Paris’ grand salons during the Revolutionary era. The oh-so-proper Adams, John and Abigail, were very much displeased by the social, intellectual and sexual goings-on that greeted them when they attended nightlife gatherings in Philadelphia during and after the Revolution. Most others had a grand and edifying time.

The modern alon formally emerged in New York during the early 20th century. Edith Wharton, who loathed the American literary scene and resettled in Paris in 1907, likely attended the intellectual gatherings hosted by her sister-in-law, Mary Cadwalader Jones, on East 11th Street. In 1900, Jones gained national prominence championing the role of nurses in public health, fiercely arguing for the professionalization of a traditionally female vocation. She enjoyed intellectual life and hosted "Mary Cadwal's parlor” at which many leading intellectual lights of the day were regulars, including the writers Henry James, Henry Adams and F. Marion Crawford, the painters John LaFarge and John Singer Sargent, and the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

However, it was Mabel Dodge’s famous “Evenings,” hosted at her townhouse at 23 Fifth Avenue during the 1910s, that made salons part of the city’s social life. Dodge was a classic Gilded Age “poor little rich girl,” a spoiled dilettante and libertine who, until she found her calling, attached herself to the latest fad and male celebrity. In 1913 she helped organize the controversial International Show of Modern Art, popularly known as the Armory Show, which launched modern art in America. That same year, she joined John Reed, “Big Bill” Hayward and Emma Goldman in support of the IWW-backed silk workers strike in Paterson, NJ, playing a leading role organizing the controversial, “Pageant of the Paterson Strike,” held at Madison Square Garden.

Dodge’s salons were organized along the lines of the traditional discussion-group format known as the General Conversation. An appointed leader, normally a specialist in an artistic, academic or political subject, offered a brief introductory commentary focusing the discussion and then invited those in attendance to jump into the discussion. Salon leaders ranged from A. A. Brill on Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, Reed on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, Margaret Sanger on birth control and women’s rights and even African-American entertainers from Harlem.

As the scholar Andrea Barnet reminds us, “Dodge’s salon was where black Harlem first met Greenwich Village bohemia and, conversely, where white bohemia got its first taste of a parallel black culture that it would soon not only glorify but actively try to emulate.”

Also during the 1910s, New York was home to other salons, gatherings facilitated by the wealth, connections, good food and drink of some of the city’s more adventurous grandees. The daughters of the prominent Stettheimer banking family, Florine, Carrie and Ettie, held evening get-togethers at their lavish apartment on West 76th Street. Their salons, which lasted until the mid-‘30s, catered to a more gentile European artistic set that included the artists Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp and Charles Demuth. Walter and Louise Arensbergs, heirs to a steel fortune, hosted a much-more downtown, bohemian crowd at their duplex at 33 West 67th Street; it included Duchamp, the artists Man Ray and Joseph Stella as well as the poets William Carlos Williams, Allen Norton and Mina Loy.

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.

* * *

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.

Popular hookups take place in bars and galleries, in apartments and theatres; while most participants are fully attired, one is organized for women in their birthday suits. In New York, they are happening all over the city, from midtown to the all-too-hip Williamsburg, from the East Village to the wilds of the Bronx and Staten Island. New York, like other parts of the country, is rediscovering the salon, helping fashion the 21st century smart city.

More political salons are likely to increase as the 2012 election draws nearer. America is in the midst of the gravest economic and social crisis since the Great Depression and a growing number of people recognize that the nation’s future is at stake. They increasingly reject the politician’s bought-and-paid-for words of reassurance and the swill promulgated by media blowviators. The tempo of political debate is intensifying and people are seeking new, more intimate and engaging forums for discussion, debate and action.

All across the country, elected officials are convening town hall meetings that are becoming contested ideological battlegrounds. The Tea Party seems increasingly a spent force, it’s analyzes and promises proving nothing more than ideological fictions, the self-serving rhetoric and opportunism of the rich and powerful. In response, progressives, liberals, moderates and other well-intentioned people are incubating grassroots get-togethers to address the challenges facing the country.

In response to the Tea Party insurgency, a more progressive group emerged called, what else, the Coffee Party USA. Its mission is clear: “We are Americans working to create a fair and inclusive society. Our members represent the diversity of thought, background, and circumstance that is found in the cities, towns, and neighborhoods of our country.” In addition, local gathers of people who’ve participated in a Netroots Nation, which began as the YearlyKos Convention, the annual conclave of the Daily Kos website founded by Markos Moulitsas, are taking place throughout the country.

Meetup convenes hundreds of political groups throughout the country, touching on every conceivable subject and welcoming thousands. In addition, more middle-of-the-road organizations are finding their traditional get-togethers (e.g., World Policy Institute’s Political Salons) facing intensified challenges as their conventional solutions no longer satisfactorily address the challenges people confront.

These are but a sampling of the spreading grassroots movements, often facilitated by ordinary activists, nonprofit groups and corporate entities, sweeping the nation. The speak to the great desire to not simply seriously intellectually reflect on important issue and meet similar like-minded people, but to fashion a political outlook and activism that truly is personally meaningful and makes a difference. Welcome to the 21st century.


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