One of the many reasons I love working in a public library is that it provides so much odd experience. In my second life as a fiction writer, people often ask me if I get a lot of material from public library work, and my general response is, not really, it’s too weird to be believed as fiction, but I have tried to embrace and appreciate the weird stuff when it comes.
So when a representative from the Wednesday Club of St. Louis, a historic women’s cultural group, approached the library to see if we had someone on staff who might want to talk about Henry Miller and the obscenity trial of Tropic of Cancer, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I had fond memories of reading Miller’s notorious novels as a teenager, and some impish part of myself relished the chance to scandalize the plush suburb of Ladue, where the Wednesday Club HQ now stands (for most of the twentieth century, the Club met in a building at the corner of Westminster and Taylor). The organizer’s email noted that “over 100 highly educated women will be in attendance.”
Indeed, looking into it, you realize what a force the Wednesday Club has been in St. Louis history. Founded initially as a poetry club devoted to the reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley–but running into resistance because of Shelley’s atheism–the group took on the name the Wednesday Club in 1890. The club was founded by Charlotte Stearns Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s mother, and Kate Chopin was a member (although she resigned after two years, and satirized Wednesday Club members in her short fiction). Devoted to the serious discussion of science, history, and cultural matters among women, the Club has had a notable impact on public policy–most notably leading the movement that led to St. Louis’s first smoke-reduction ordinances in the early 20th century.
As the date approached, I began to have anxious visions. I’m the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of the night sweating, and my brain produced images of over one hundred pearl-clad ladies looking on in horror as I recited an especially filthy passage of Miller. Doing the actual research calmed these nervous visions somewhat. Miller was neither as incendiary, nor as interesting, as I remembered him to be: instead of a work of revolutionary obscenity, I found Tropic of Cancer to be a boring, self-absorbed, thoroughly misogynistic, and plotless ramble … not exactly promising for my speech.
That said, the story of how Tropic of Cancer got published was fascinating, and I ended up focusing on this, the human moments–Anais Nin borrowing funds from her psychiatrist Otto Rank to fund the publication of Tropic in France; Judge Woolsey reading Ulysses in his luxurious wood-paneled library, before he ruled on it; Barney Rosset of Grove Press stumbling upon the illegal “Medusa” edition at Gotham Book Mart in New York. Publishers, pornographers, prudes, and postmasters made for great side characters in the story of 20th century U.S. censorship.
And there had been no cause to worry: I couldn’t have found a more appreciative audience than the women of the Wednesday Club. There were a few gasps when I talked about the multiple love triangles Miller found himself in during the ’20s and ’30s, but there was also a lot of warm, appreciative laughter. Afterwards, I talked with several club members about obscenity and free expression, the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and the ways that boundaries affect artists, both positive and negative. Our gracious host, described as the “baby” of the group, published erotic verse under several pseudonyms. Other women at the table spoke about their world travels and the great lost bookstores of St. Louis. We heard from a woman who was in a rock band and had just started violin lessons. “I’m terrible,” she said. “But I keep practicing.”
In short, I have nothing but admiration for the bold and curious women of the Wednesday Club, and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. In the stacks here at Central Library, we have several volumes of Wednesday Club verse–anthologies of winning poems from their annual contest. A guy you may have heard of, Tennessee Williams, won this prize in 1936. Williams won $25 for his poem, but if you enter this year, you will have the opportunity to win one of three prizes ($500, $300, and $150). The deadline is February 1; complete guidelines can be found here.