The Vicious Fun of America’s Most Famous Literary CircleRoundup
tags: cultural history, literary history
Dr. Ratner-Rosenhagen is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of the Algonquin Round Table, one of the 20th century’s most famous literary gatherings. The story has become a part of New York City lore: In June 1919, a group of writers and critics gathered at the Algonquin Hotel, at 59 West 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan, to welcome the critic Alexander Woollcott home from the war. What started as an impromptu lunch (at two square tables pushed together; the round table came a year later) proved to be such delicious fun that the group returned at 1 p.m., and practically every day thereafter, inviting new lunch companions, until it dissolved in the early 1930s.
The wattage of ribaldry and verbal dexterity around the table was enough to electrify all of Manhattan. Regular members of what many called the “vicious circle” included the humorist and editor Robert Benchley, the sportswriter Heywood Broun, the columnist Franklin P. Adams, the producer Brock Pemberton and the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz. The playwrights George S. Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood were there. Edna Ferber, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story author, regularly sat near Harold Ross, the editor and a co-founder of The New Yorker, as did the “Guinevere of the Round Table,” Dorothy Parker.
With Prohibition descending, the Round Table drank black coffee (with an occasional splash of moonshine from a member’s hip flask), dined on popovers and scrambled eggs, played charades and word games, inhaled cigarette smoke, exhaled sardonic barbs and purred in delight when their wit outmaneuvered their neighbor’s. It is fabled to have been a “10-year lunch” of fabulous, if also ferocious, fun.
But the historical reality of the Algonquin lunch bunch is more interesting than the fable. The go-go image of the Roaring Twenties has much to do with this historical amnesia, for it obscures how the decade not only roared with new consumer toys, sexual liberation and artistic experimentation, but also bellowed with timid provincialism, bellicose nationalism and intractable sexism, racism and xenophobia. The Algonquinites’ exhilaration in verbal exchange as blood sport hides a darker truth they knew all too well: the kind of culture their cosmopolitan liberalism was up against, and what it would take to turn their creative expression into trenchant social criticism.
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