Back in January, we published Jennifer Montgomery’s fascinating post on the friendship between Jean Webster, author of children’s classic Daddy-Long-Legs, and fellow New Woman, the poet Adelaide Crapsey. We mentioned then that Jennifer’s research into books for American girls had uncovered further literary friendships. Today we’re delighted to share her account of a female writing group founded in the late nineteenth-century.
When children’s book writer Annie Fellows Johnston wrote her autobiography, she looked back with special fondness on the writing group that she had helped found over twenty years earlier, in the 1890s: the Louisville Authors’ Club. ‘The tie that bound us was a very strong one’, Johnston remembered, ‘and our friendship was deeply rooted’.
Indeed, Johnston’s autobiography offers evidence of that strong tie beyond her own memories: Alice Hegan Rice, another member of the Authors’ Club, wrote a eulogistic introductory essay to the volume. ‘Behind the charming story-teller’, she wrote of Johnston, ‘is a woman of rare character and exalted vision’. And Rice’s own output testifies to the strength of the Authors’ Club bonds, as well. She dedicated her eighth novel ‘to the small band of Kentucky writers with whom it has been my happy fortune to make the literary pilgrimage’.
It was indeed a small club: ‘never more than seven or eight’, remembered Johnston. But over the two decades of the club’s existence, its fluctuating membership included some of the most popular authors of the early twentieth century. Johnston’s Little Colonel series, later adapted into a Shirley Temple movie, drew favorable comparisons to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. After Alcott’s death, Rice noted that girls across America ‘acclaimed Annie Fellows Johnston their new and cherished leader’. Rice herself wrote the bestselling Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, which paid for a journey around the world in the company of fellow Authors’ Club members Fannie Caldwell (who was Rice’s aunt and became a best-selling author in her own right) and Ellen Semple. Rice was only sorry that she couldn’t bring more of the Authors’ Club with her: ‘the poignant part of pleasure is that we can’t share it with all those we love’, she wrote to one of the members left behind.
This success arose in part from the club’s serious approach to both the craft of writing and the business side of professional authorship. The members exchanged manuscripts for criticism in classic writers’ group fashion, but also discussed the literary markets and compared letters they received from editors and publishers. Pooling their knowledge offered them a unique grasp on the business side of literary success.
Sometimes the Authors’ Club collaborated even further. Rice once invited the whole club to her family’s cabin in the woods, where the members shared their stories on the prompt ‘The Well-Bred Young Lady in a Barber Shop at Midnight’. These stories later filled an entire issue of the magazine The Black Cat. Rice and Caldwell co-authored Caldwell’s first book, The Lady of the Decoration, an epistolary novel adapted from the letters she wrote home from her work at a kindergarten in Japan. Rice edited the letters to add a love story, indispensable for marketing purposes, and they published the book under a single pseudonym ‘Frances Little’. The book became a bestseller even though Rice’s involvement was secret.
When Caldwell later used the same pseudonym to write a sequel on her own, she dedicated the book to ‘My Fellow Wanderers through the Orient’, because the book drew on her adventures with Rice and Semple during their journey around the world. ‘The Century Co. writes that the advance orders for her [Caldwell’s] new book have been enormous. Aren’t you delighted for her?’ Semple wrote to yet another member.
Like Caldwell, Semple drew on her trip with Rice to write a book, but hers was a nonfiction book on geography. Although the Authors’ Club members united in their serious approach to their work, it spanned a variety of genres. The Club found room for Johnston’s children’s literature, Semple’s academic nonfiction, Rice’s romances, and Margaret Vandercook’s hastily written series books: she churned out three or more novels a year like The Camp Fire Girls, The Ranch Girls, and The Red Cross Girls. Some libraries wouldn’t carry such books, but in the Authors’ Club they fit alongside Johnston’s critically acclaimed Little Colonel series. In her autobiography, Johnston proudly included Vandercook in a list of Authors’ Club members.
The Authors’ Club lasted over twenty years, but by the late 1910s it began to disperse. Johnston, one of the Club’s founding members, published her final novel in 1918, aged 55. Caldwell, was also in her mid-fifties when she brought out her last book, and Vandercook followed suit in the early 1920s. While Semple, whose gender made it difficult for her to find a university post, finally found a permanent academic position at the age of 59 in 1922 – at Clark University in Massachusetts, far from Louisville.
The friendships between the members remained strong, but with fewer and fewer working writers among its members, the Authors’ Club drifted out of existence. By the time Annie wrote her autobiography in the late 1920s, the Authors’ Club was only a memory. But that memory, Annie wrote, ‘is one of my most cherished possessions’.
By day, Jennifer Montgomery works in a library; by night, she writes novels and reads about nineteenth-century novelists.
Edited by Kathleen Dixon Donnelly, who posts at Such Friends, and is currently working on a book, ‘Such Friends’: A Scrapbook Almanac of Writers’ Salons, 1897-1930.
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