Monday, June 29, 2009

The Early Years of the Hastings Literature Club

By Julia House

Editor’s Note: This year the Hastings Literature Club, the oldest cultural organization in Hastings, celebrates its 100th anniversary. Its first president was Julia House, author of last week’s reminiscence on the village in the first decade of the 20th century. Julia and John House lived in the Tower Ridge area from 1903 until 1909, when they built themselves a new house on Sheldon Place. Julia describes it as “up in the fields where we used to take the children to pick daisies and look at the cows.” Even before the move, Julia had become involved with a group that later became the Literature Club. What follows is an edited version of an informal history of that organization that Julia wrote in 1942.

I think I may claim for that early group that they did work their brains just a little harder than we do to-day. We made our programs with the idea of not merely reading a book and then sharing the best of it with the Club; we were supposed to take a literary subject, read as many books as we could get hold of and could find time to read on that subject – then boil down the knowledge thus gained, and to the best of our ability, in a strictly limited time, present it to the Club. In short, we wrote papers and we read our papers, and I really wish that some of the best of those papers could have been preserved along with the records, just to show what we could do in those days. …

The Club began as a very small group, probably in 1905 or ’06 – the exact date seems to have become lost in the mists of antiquity – when a few women in Yonkers began meeting to read and discuss books. Sarah Hine [wife of photographer Lewis W. Hine] and Josephine Murlin [wife of John R. Murlin] were the prime movers in this modest enterprise. There were others whose names I have forgotten as they dropped out when the group became centered in Hastings.

This came through the Murlins moving to Hastings. Soon after they came here, Mrs. Murlin invited some of her new friends, who were later to be her neighbors on Locust Hill, to join the group. That was when Mrs. Bennett, Mrs. [Ina] Griswold, Mrs. [Margaret] Sanger, Mrs. Matthew, and I came in, making it a considerably larger circle. Mrs. Hine and Mrs. Middleton still came up from Yonkers faithfully and the rest of us frequently jogged down there in the trolley for meetings with them.

Ina Griswold, one of the founding members of the Literature Club, on the far left, attends a meeting of the club around 1960 in the home of Phyllis Andrews. Her daughter Ruth sits with her back to the camera, and across from her are Harriet Haug (right), and possibly Miriam Pomeroy (next to Ina).

Naturally with so few members, each one entertained often, but the entertaining was very simple. Tea was the only beverage ever served, and with it we might have crackers or maybe some peppermints. So it wasn’t much of a burden on the hostess and left our minds pretty free for Literature. The custom of bringing our sewing or knitting to the meeting dates from those early days, when we were only too glad to sit quietly and darn the children’s socks or let down the hems of their dresses, away from the little dears for a time, and to the soothing accompaniment of good literature. I am glad that, as we have grown bigger, we have still kept to those informal ways and are still more like a gathering of real country neighbors than a proper women’s club. …

In 1909 we actually became a Club, for then we adopted a constitution and elected officers – a President, Secretary, and a Chairman of the Program Committee. … For the first few years, our programs were mostly based on syllabi of Literature courses given at Columbia, but after a while we got away from those, and our Program Committees depended on the preparatory reading they did themselves as a basis for the year’s work. …

The Literature Club's certificate from the New York State Education Department registering it as a "study club" in 1910.

After doing English literature with some degree of thoroughness, we turned to the literature of other lands – France, Germany, Russia, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries, getting a great deal of pleasure and at least some new knowledge. After we felt we had had enough of foreign culture for the time being, we turned to our American writers and found that a great deal was to be learned about them, more than we had studied in school. We found fresh viewpoints and new appreciation of familiar writers. …

I was under the impression that during the First World War we suspended our meetings for at least one winter for I seem to remember nothing of that year of 1917 but making surgical dressings in Mrs. Fink’s dining room. But it seems we did keep up our regular meetings listening to the programs while doing this work and always meeting at the same place where the materials were kept. That was a sober time, but I am sure we were drawn closer together, not only our group but the whole community, by the strains of the times. …

And it is good that we can still go on together for a while, old friends and newer ones. Our Club has enlarged our vision and brought us into contact with great minds, but most of all it has been a source of both inspiration and relaxation because of the friendly feeling, the almost family feeling of it, the welcome sympathy in times of trouble, the never failing interest of each one in all the rest. May there always be a Woman’s Literature Club of Hastings-on-Hudson.

A portrait of Mrs. Julia House in 1918.

The Historical Society has a large collection of material from the Literature Club, including an (almost) complete set of programs. The records have been organized for us by members Barbara Thompson and Helen Barolini, and Susan Korsten and Diana Jaeger have created the display on the club that is currently on view at the Historical Society. Christine Lehner, another member, is gathering material for an article about the club and its history. Watch the Hastings Literature Club blog for more information.
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