Literary Lyceum of America, 1886


THE LITERARY LYCEUM OF AMERICA, formed in 1886, originated in a genuine and sincere attempt to supplant the N.A.P.A. with an organization better adapted to advance the literary and cultural element in amateur journalism. The name Lyceum seems to be a favorite one among the reformers. The Literary Lyceum was inspired, but not personally organized, by James J. O’Connell, of Brooklyn. O’Connell entered amateur journalism in 1877, publishing a small paper called the Fire-Fly, which he later enlarged, changing it name to the Phoenix. In 1882 he became associate editor of the Paragon, published by James F. Kavanagh. O’Connell seldom attended an amateur convention, scorned all political honors, and treated all the machinery of association life with contempt. He became known as one of the leading poets and critics of the time. His criticisms were especially famous, forcibly expressed, penetrating and discerning. He was outspoken, a master of sarcasm and ridicule, and skilled in irony. Naturally, he made many enemies. He maintained a well-equipped printing office, printing his own and a number of other amateur journals. In 1883 he printed and published a bound volume of his writings under the title of Stanzas and Sketches, one of the best of amateur books.


The working organizer of the Lyceum was Brainerd Prescott Emery of Newburgh, N. Y., editor of the Sentinel from 1882 to 1886. In the latter year he started a new magazine called Athenia. Emery was a very popular and prolific poet, and a critic of merit. In 1885 he served as Official Editor of the National Association. To Emery’s Athenia for October, 1886, O’Connell contributed a letter signed “Whoelsecoulditbe,” purporting to be from an “Amateur of Nowhere” who was on a visit to the United States. In his letter the writer described the condition of amateur journalism as he found it, seeing in it little good, and deeming the National A.P.A. an organization impotent and useless, its officers having nothing to do and taking good care to do it. He contrasts this with the splendid work of “our honored Amateur Authors’ Association in the land of Nowhere.” This letter caused much discussion in the amateur press.


One of the leaders in the new organization was Ernest A. Edkins, among the finest poets amateur journalism has seen. He was at the time Official Editor of the National A.P.A. and President of the Eastern A.P.A. and had just been awarded the title of essay laureate, Mr. O’Connell being the judge. Another of the prominent authors of the time was J. Rosevelt Gleason, who wrote some of the best poetry in amateur literature. Edkins and Gleason met and planned the details of the Lyceum and wrote a provisional constitution. With Emery they formed themselves into an Executive Board, Emery being made Secretary.


The January issue of Athenia contained a statement from this Executive Board under the heading, “The Parting of the Ways.” Accompanying the magazine was a circular giving the provisional constitution. This provided that the “general business of the Lyceum shall be administered by an Executive Board to consist of three members, who shall be appointed at each annual meeting by their pre­decessors in office.” It was also provided that the Executive Board should draw up “a list of the names of such persons, papers and associations whose opinions are inimical to the principles herein above expressed. Such names as shall, at a special meeting, by a two-thirds vote of the members present, be included in said list, shall constitute the proscription list.” It was declared that “the interchange of intelli­gent thought and refined criticism shall constitute alike the object and the aim of its adherents.” It was also provided that “no member of the Lyceum shall in any manner discuss the affairs of the institution known as Amateurdom” and that no member shall “send any paper, contribution or subscription to any person, paper or association included in the proscription list of the Lyceum, and he shall accept no copies of papers so mentioned,” and “he shall not attend any meeting of any association proscribed by the Lyceum.”


This arrogant assumption of superiority in providing for a proscription list aroused great indignation among the rank and file of amateur journalists, a feeling augmented by the harsh words of the Executive Board’s statement, which declared that “Amateur Journalism is today regarded, wherever it is known, as a band of self-satisfied upstarts,” and that “a premium has been placed upon dullness and a ban upon brains.” This attitude and the accompanying words stirred up an opposition which was heated and was often expressed in violent language and offensive epithets. The motives of the organizers of the Lyceum were even questioned, unjustly. President Munro of the National devoted a large portion of his message to a scathing review of the new society. The matter was brought to the attention of the Judiciary Committee of the N.A.P.A. This Committee, composed of Will S. Moore, Frederic Heath and Edwin B. Swift, severely censured those who were connected with the Lyceum, recommended their expulsion, and closed with these words:


To insure the perpetuity and continued success of our association it is necessary to punish the movers in all attempted insurrections in the severest manner possible. This is the time when all loyal members of our association must rally to its standard and prove its everlasting stability.


Only three amateur journals opened their columns to the Lyceum, Emery’s Athenia being the mainstay of the movement. The members of the Lyceum never numbered a dozen, but included among them were some, not all, of the foremost authors of the day. Many of those who did not join the new organization sym­pathized with its aims and approved of its ideals, but disagreed as to its methods. In response to an invitation to join the Lyceum Truman J. Spencer published an open letter to Mr. Emery in the June issue of Juvens Vade Mecum in which he expressed agreement with the Lyceum’s purpose but differed with its plan of action. “You,” he wrote, “would annihilate amateur journalism; I would reform it; you would banish politics; I would improve it.” He said that the organizers forgot the days when they were young and inexperienced, and how amateur journalism had made its appeal to them then. He called attention to O’Connell’s early papers, the Fire-Fly and Phoenix, filled with politics, puzzles, slang and crude expression, and pointed out that through his experience he had become the polished leader and literary light of the time, quoting O’Connell’s words that he “recognized how much amateur journalism had done for him.” Spencer saw no advantage either in changing “the form of government from the democracy of amateur journalism to a self-perpetuating oligarchy.”


The Lyceum failed through lack of support. But its members were welcomed back. At the Philadelphia convention the reference to the Lyceum was stricken out of the report of the Judiciary Committee, and the resignations of Emery, Edkins and others were not accepted. President Stinson, himself a gifted poet and critic, in his first message said that from the first he had been in “sympathy with the principles of the movement, but objected to the manner of carrying them out.” He referred to the action of the Philadelphia convention as forcefully demonstrating “the fact that the Lyceum’s members would be received in a spirit of kindliness.” “Clearly,” he said, “we cannot afford to lose the men who have done so much toward building up our literature, and who, for the most part, are sincere in their work of reform.”


The leaders in the Lyceum movement admitted their failure, and in the September, 1888, issue of Our Free Lance Mr. Emery made this handsome acknowl­edgment of error:


To us belong the ashes of defeat; to you, former comrades, in amateur journalism, the palm of victory. We make this confession in all candor; we have in the past pursued a mistaken course; we took an ignis Jaeuus for a true light, we carried a reform to such an extreme that it ceased to be a reform. Now we can see all this, and that is why we are back in amateur journalism, to try, by earnest work, to atone for past mistakes.


Mr. Emery later published several fine literary magazines, was once more Official Editor of the N.A.P.A., and was three times awarded the title of poet laureate. A few years later Mr. Gleason in a letter to the Editor of the National Amateur confessed that the methods of the Lyceum were wrong, and that the whole movement was a mistake. An extract from this letter will be found later in this chapter in connection with the Interstate Association.


Official Editor Spencer in the September issue of the National Amateur summed up the experience as follows:


The principles which the leaders of the movement professed had been gathering headway for years, while upon the other hand the low standard of effort set up by many had served to awaken feelings of disgust in numerous members of the fraternity. Nor is it likely that any more plausible or more forcible reasons for a like departure will ever be urged. The fundamental principles they advocated were not only right, but were believed in, if not acted up to, by at least nine-tenths of the adherents of amateur journalism. And it is almost certain that such a move will not again be led by a body of men who, in its united membership, will combine such literary stand­ing and ability with so much political skill and sagacity, together with such popularity and high official position and power. Amateur journalism has been put to the severe test of fighting a strong and intelligently conducted rebellion in its ranks, and it has not been found wanting.


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