Title: A Daughter of the Middle Border by Hamlin Garland
Location: Google Books Date: 1921
Hamlin Garland and Lorado Taft were very good friends. The excerpt I have chosen is from Hamlin’s second book in his autobiographical series and recounts how he met Taft and a little on the founding of the famous “Little Room” literary club. This book also won Garland the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1922.
My first formal introduction to the literary and artistic circle in which I was destined to work and war for many years, took place through the medium of an address on Impressionism in Art which I delivered in the library of Franklin Head, a banker whose home had become one of the best-known intellectual meeting places on the North Side. This lecture, considered very radical at the time, was the direct outcome of several years of study and battle in Boston in support of the open-air school of painting, a school which was astonishing the West with its defiant play of reds and yellows, and the flame of its purpie shadows. As a missionary in the interest of the New Art, I rejoiced in this opportunity to advance its inspiring heresies.
While uttering my shocking doctrines (entrenched behind a broad, book-laden desk), my eyes were attracted to the face of a slender black-bearded young man whose shining eyes and occasional smiling nod indicated a joyous agreement with the main points of my harangue. I had never seen him before, but I at once recognized in him a fellow conspirator against “The Old Hat” forces of conservatism in painting.
At the close of my lecture he drew near and putting out his hand, said, “My name is Taft—Lorado Taft. I am a sculptor, but now and again I talk on painting. Impressionism is all very new here in the West, but like yourself I am an advocate of it, I am doing my best to popularize a knowledge of it, and I hope you will call upon me at my studio some afternoon—any afternoon and discuss these isms with me.”
Young Lorado Taft interested me, and I instantly accepted his invitation to call, and in this way (notwithstanding a wide difference in training and temperament), a friendship was established which has never been strained even in the fiercest of our esthetic controversies. Many others of the men and women I met that night became my co-workers in the building of the “greater Chicago,” which was even then coming into being—the menace of the hyphenate American had no place in our thoughts.
In less than a month I fell into a routine as regular, as peaceful, as that in which I had moved in Boston. Each morning in my quiet sunny room I wrote, with complete absorption, from seven o’clock until noon, confidently composing poems, stories, essays, and dramas. I worked like a painter with several themes in hand passing from one to the other as I felt inclined. After luncheon I walked down town seeking exercise and recreation. It soon became my habit to spend an hour or two in Taft’s studio (I fear to his serious detriment), and in this way I soon came to know most of the “Bunnies” of “the Rabbit-Warren” as Henry B. Fuller characterized this studio building —and it well deserved the name! Art was young and timid in Cook County.
Among the women of this group Bessie Potter, who did lovely statuettes of girls and children, was a notable figure. Edward Kemeys, Oliver Dennett Grover, Charles Francis Browne, and Hermon MacNeill, all young artists of high endowment, and marked personal charm became my valued associates and friends. We were all equally poor and equally confident of the future. Our doubts were few and transitory as cloud shadows, our hopes had the wings of eagles.
As Chicago possessed few clubs of any kind and had no common place of meeting for those who cultivated the fine arts, Taft’s studio became, naturally, our center of esthetic exchange. Painting and sculpture were not greatly encouraged anywhere in the West, but Lorado and his brave colleagues, hardy frontiersmen of art, laughed in the face of all discouragement.
A group of us often lunched in what Taft called “the Beanery”—a noisy, sloppy little restaurant on Van Buren Street, where our lofty discussions of Grecian sculpture were punctuated by the crash of waiter-proof crockery, or smothered with the howl of slid chairs. However, no one greatly minded these barbarities. They were all a part of the game. If any of us felt particularly flush we dined, at sixty cents each, in the basement of a big department store a few doors further west; and when now and then some good “lay brother” like Melville Stone, or Franklin Head, invited us to a “royal gorge” at Kinsley’s or to a princely luncheon in the tower room of the Union League, we went like minstrels to the baron’s hall. None of us possessed evening suits and some of us went so far as to denounce swallowtail coats as “undemocratic.” I was one of these.
This “artistic gang” also contained several writers who kept a little apart from the journalistic circle of which Eugene Field and Opie Read were the leaders, and though I passed freely from one of these groups to the other I acknowledged myself more at ease with Henry Fuller and Taft and Browne, and a little later I united with them in organizing a society to fill our need of a common meeting place. This association we called The Little Room, a name suggested by Madelaine Yale Wynne’s story of an intermittently vanishing chamber in an old New England homestead.
For a year or two we met in Bessie Potter’s studio, and on the theory that our club, visible and hospitable on Friday afternoon, was non-existent during all the other days of the week, we called it “the Little Room.” Later still we shifted to Ralph Clarkson’s studio in the Fine Arts Building—where it still flourishes.
The fact is, I was a poor club man. I did not smoke, and never used rum except as a hair tonic—and beer and tobacco were rather distasteful to me. I do not boast of this singularity, I merely state it. No doubt I was considered a dull and profitless companion even in “the Little Room,” but in most of my sobrieties Taft and Browne upheld me, though they both possessed the redeeming virtue of being amusing, which I, most certainly, never achieved.
Taft was especially witty in his sly, sidewise comment, and often when several of us were in hot debate, his sententious or humorous retorts cut or stung in defence of some esthetic principle much more effectively than most of my harangues. Sculpture, with him, was a religious faith, and he defended it manfully and practiced it with skill and an industry which was astounding.
Though a noble figure and universally admired, he had, like myself, two very serious defects, he was addicted to frock coats and the habit of lecturing! Although he did not go so far as to wear a plaid Windsor tie with his “Prince Albert” coat (as I have been accused of doing), he displayed something of the professor’s zeal in his platform addresses. I would demur against the plaid Windsor tie indictment if I dared to do so, but a certain snapshot portrait taken by a South-side photographer of that day (and still extant) forces me to painful confession—-I had such a tie, and I wore it with a frock coat. My social status is thus clearly defined.
Taft’s studio, which was on the top floor of the Athenaeum- Building on Van Buren Street, had a section which he called “the morgue,” for the reason that it was littered with piaster duplicates of busts, arms, and hands. This room, fitted up with shelf-like bunks, was filled nearly every night with penniless young sculptors who camped in primitive simplicity amid the grewsome discarded portraits of Cook County’s most illustrious citizens. Several of these roomers have since become artists of wide renown, and I refrain from disclosing their names. No doubt they will smile as they recall those nights amid their landlord’s cast-off handiwork.
Taft was an “easy mark” in those times, a shining hope to all the indigent models, discouraged painters and other esthetic derelicts of the Columbian Exposition. No artist suppliant ever knocked at his door without getting a dollar, and some of them got twenty. For several years Clarkson and I had him on our minds because of this gentle and yielding disposition until at last we discovered that in one way or another, in spite of a reckless prodigality, he prospered. The bread which he cheerfully cast upon these unknown waters, almost always returned (sometimes from another direction) in loaves at least as large as biscuits. His fame steadily increased with his charity. I did not understand the principle of his manner of life then, and I do not now. By all the laws of my experience he should at this moment be in the poorhouse, but he isn’t—he is rich and honored and loved.
In sculpture he was, at this time a conservative, a worshiper of the Greek, and it would seem that I became his counter-irritant, for my demand for “A native art” kept him wholesomely stirred up. One by one as the years passed he yielded esthetic positions which at first he most stoutly held. He conceded that the Modern could not be entirely expressed by the Ancient, that America might sometime grow to the dignity of having an art of its own, and that in sculpture (as in painting and architecture) new problems might arise. Even in his own work (although he professed but one ideal, the Athenian) he came at last to include the plastic value of the red man, and to find in the expression of the Sioux or Omaha a certain sorrowful dignity which fell parallel with his own grave temperament, for, despite his smiling face, his best work remained somber, almost tragic in spirit.
Photo credit: The Hamlin Garland Collection, University of Southern California