Monday, August 19, 2013

Wit, and a Round Table

In a blog entitled Heroines of Fantasy, I imagine that your first instinct is to think King Arthur; but I'm talking about the Algonquin Round Table--those famous wits who gathered at the Algonquin Hotel in NYC from about 1919-1929. Dorothy Parker is always the first to spring to mind. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

While chatting with my eldest daughter the other day, I told her she'd have been a marvelous addition to the Algonquin Round Table; she had no idea what I was talking about. How is that possible? She is a well-read, well-educated woman. She writes for a living, in NYC. It astounded me, and I had to acknowledge that many probably have no idea of what it was, and the way the internet is now a very large, very bicker-ish Round Table--one often lacking the wit.

It all started as a joke, with a group that had a few names ("The Viscous Circle" is my favorite) before it settled on The Algonquin Round Table, so dubbed for the hotel they gathered in. It was all about who could be wittiest--often in a very scathing way--who could out-do the rest. As many of the members were also journalists with national by-lines, these luncheons were reported, and became quite famous both nationally and internationally.

Left to right: Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott
The group that would become The Round Table began meeting in June 1919. Theatrical agent John Peter Toohey, annoyed by drama critic Alexander Woollcott's refusal to plug one of Toohey's clients in his column, decided to play a rather mean practical joke. He organized a luncheon, supposedly to welcome Woollcott back from WW1 (he was there as a correspondent for Stars and Stripes) but instead of a welcome home, he got roasted by the attendees. Woollcott rather enjoyed the joke. The event turned out to be a huge success, so much so that the group decided a daily luncheon to poke fun at one another, outwit one another, generally harrass one another was a grand idea.

And it was.

I could go on and on about the members, the history, the pranks and the games they played--recreating the Algonquin Round Table has always been an aspiration of mine. It has been emulated over the years, but never duplicated. It was a Camelot of Wits, and a definite result of right place, right time, right people. There is no duplicating it.

So why am I writing about the Algonquin Round Table, anyway? Because while it is forever gone, shades of it still do exist in various places--especially on the internet. Remember those old chatrooms so popular back in the 1990s? Facebook, blogs, discussion boards--flamewars aren't quite the same, but there are shades of the A.R.T. once in a while.

And in small press world,* where there is a sense of camaraderie and good-natured competition. (I am remembering the Hadley Rille Books vs. Yard Dog Press game of charades during ConQuest 2012. Hilarious fun.) Everyone knows everyone, or at least of everyone. When gathered in the same place at the same time--as often happens at conventions--you can often catch "rival" houses sitting together, poking fun at one another, sharing ideas and experiences, collaborating on projects. There is usually a lot of laughter. Among my own Hadley Rille Books family members, we share inside jokes, tease one another incessantly, and on the rare occassion when there are several of us gathered in the same place, the absolute joy of being in one another's company is palpable. Maybe I'm just too in love with my HRB family, but I'm pretty sure it's true outside of it.

Whether the internet or small press world, it's not quite the wit of The Algonquin Round Table, but it is the kinship and fun I always imagined existed among its members. Truly, I'm ever the mother of any group I happen to be part of; my tongue is not sharp enough to have been one of the Vicious Circle. I suppose my dream of ressurecting the entity is like my love for pirates--it's the notion of them I fancy, not the reality.

*I can't comment on big press, as that is not my experience. I imagine it's quite the same, on a bigger scale.


Anonymous said...

Years ago, I started getting on the online forums. I started with Baen's Bar and after discovering the Asimov's forum, I posted most frequently there. I still stay in contact with some of those folks and was glad of the opportunity to get to "hang out" with them. And there was many a long night spent arguing politics or trashing sucky writers to be sure. Good times. Honestly, I think the internet works a little better for the ART experience, since nowadays, most people that write are too poor to afford lunch at a nice hotel.

LiveJournal was good while it lasted too, but lacked the rapid-fire banter of a forum.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--good point! And I believe the Algonquin Hotel was kind of ritzy.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds the forums online to echo that fabulous ART experience. Sometimes the wit falls out of the firestorms, but there really are some great places to hang out.

Yeah, I still keep hoping Livejournal will be resurrected, but it just keeps getting quieter and quieter. :(

Unknown said...

Google Plus Hangouts have some potential for an exchange of snappy dialogue. I like the idea of seeing the people I'm talking with. You only have to be presentable from shoulders up, and can eat, drink and be merry with whatever you have on hand -- free.

My biggest problem with online discussion is my penchant for sarcasm. If I could see faces, I could read reactions and have a clue whether anyone understood that I was being sarcastic.

Terri-Lynne said...

Deb--very true. It's so hard to know if people actually GOT what you're saying. Sarcasm is hard to pull off on the internet. I think flame wars all hinge on the fact that wording being off by just a little bit can cause the meaning to get changed too easily. For some, that's all the opening needed.

Anonymous said...

I was on a long break from Asimov's once, but when I returned, I heard Kurt Vonnegut had died. So, I posted "So it goes."

People were PISSED. It was only when another forumite pointed out that was what KV would have said in "Slaughterhouse Five" did the potential for rabid fandom firestorm pass.

I'd like to think Kurt would have thought it was funny. But what kind of rabid fans don't know that saying from Vonnegut? Sheesh

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Clint--(it's me, Terri, posting from the other computer who strangely sends all my comments to my own site to the spam folder.)

Exactly!! That is another thing that doesn't happen quite so readily in a face-to-face situation; getting one's panties in a twist over some imagined slight. It happens, but it doesn't seem to flair as quickly or as hotly as it does on line. I suppose that's why it's referred to as a flamewar.

batgirl said...

I feel there should be a voice-over PSA here: "Have you spoken to your daughter about the Algonquin Round Table?"
I have the Portable Dorothy Parker and several Robert Benchley collections. (I like Benchley better than Thurber.) And I have introduced a few deserving people to Parker's short stories. Reading "The Little Hours" out loud is difficult because I laugh too hard.

I was thinking 'but there was a movie about them! not long ago!' when I realised it probably was something like 20 yrs ago that it came out. Sigh.

Terri-Lynne said...

There's a movie?? I'm going to have to look that up. I wonder if Katherine Hepburn plays Dorothy Parker. Or Lauren Bacall. Or Liz Bankroft...

Anonymous said...

Oh no, Terri. It's Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dorothy Parker. It's called Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and it's great. I thought, anyway.

Here's the IMDB for it.

Terri-Lynne said...

Eeep! I will have to watch this. Thanks, Clint!

And you know, once you said Jennifer Jason Leigh, I remembered the movie. I might have actually seen it!

I wonder if that's where I know the A.R.T. from...