"The Chicago Literary Club is neither literary nor a club. Discuss."
So posits Bill Barnhart in a paper he prepared for presentation at the April 28 meeting of the club. The paper, titled "Clubbing," recounts the history of one of Chicago's august institutions, which just celebrated its 140th anniversary and its 4,530th meeting. It rose from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire as merchants, traders, manufacturers and financiers sought to raise the city's cultural standing and nurture their own intellectual growth.
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You can be forgiven if you are unfamiliar with the club; even several of its current members said they were unaware of it before they were asked to participate. Not that the club is a secret society. In fact, it is looking for new members who are, to quote its mission statement, "interested in writing original essays on topics of their own choosing and in listening to other members present their essays." Which is why Barnhart's paper takes the view that perhaps a more accurate term would be "essay club."
The group has counted numerous luminaries in its ranks, including Abraham Lincoln's son Robert Todd Lincoln, although there is no record he presented a paper. With some exceptions, members are not professional writers. Rather, they are a convivial and conversational group drawn to "intellectual pursuit," noted Louise Smith, a member since 2010.
"The people are varied and interesting," she said. "I enjoy their company."
The club meets Monday nights between October and May at the Cliff Dwellers club, on the 22nd floor of 200 S. Michigan Ave. After cocktails and dinner, members take their seats in the bar area, where the speaker stands at an antique lectern to deliver his or her essay.
According to the bylaws, presentations should be less than one hour. Speakers are not to speak from notes but from a fully written text. Papers are not subject to criticism.
Gilbert Klapper, a former club president, said he spent two years researching one of his papers. "It's an accomplishment to write an essay that's coherent," he said after one recent meeting in which lawyer Hugh J. Schwartzberg riveted members with his paper, "In the Details," which dealt with slavery, the Constitution and statesman James Wilson.
Decades of papers are archived on the club's website (the Newberry Library also houses an archive). On average, two papers that are deemed exceptional are printed in booklets per year. It is tradition that essays sport intriguing yet opaque titles that will not fully make sense until after the paper is read. Donald E. Chatham's "Cold Beet Soup," for example, refers to borscht, a staple of the paper's subject, the Catskills resort area.
One of the club's unwritten rules is that papers be unrelated to their presenters' professions or fields of expertise. There have been exceptions. In 1896, architect Daniel Burnham unveiled his groundbreaking plan for Chicago's development.
Surprisingly, considering Chicago's rich literary tradition, not many famous Chicago writers have joined. "Spoon River Anthology" author Edgar Lee Masters did. Barnhart is a former Chicago Tribune deputy business editor and columnist. WGN newsman Robert Jordan also is a member. Even for Jordan, an on-camera journalist, presenting a paper can be a daunting experience.
"I was nervously anticipating the night of my presentation," Jordan recalled. "As it turned out, it coincided with a Monday night Chicago Bears game and a presidential debate. I thought I would be lucky to get two people, so I invited my wife and best friend." About 15 people showed up, he said.
For Christopher Straus, 48, the club is a family affair too. His grandfathers and father were members. His father's nights at the club meant "we could talk mom into getting pizza," he said, laughing. As a member now himself, he added, "This is an element of history and cultural information that is new to me and that I find very fulfilling in a way that going to the movies isn't always," he said.
Donald Liebenson is a frequent Tribune contributor. For more details about the Chicago Literary Club, visit chilit.org.