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  • Authorial Affiliations, or, the Clubbing and Collaborating of Brander Matthews
  • Susanna Ashton (bio)

Both the friends and enemies of Brander Matthews attested to his sociability. Clayton Hamilton wrote in 1929 that Matthews had a “genius in the gentle art of friendship” (86). Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, observed that Matthews “knew everybody and everybody knew him” and Mark Twain even jokingly inscribed one of his books, “To B. M. From his only friend.” 1 Although Matthews counted among his friends many prominent critics, writers, and politicians, (especially notable was his intimate friendship with Theodore Roosevelt), his congeniality and relentless socializing was not part of a program of professional networking. For Matthews, the ability to socialize was part of his identity as a specific kind of cultural figure, that of a professional man of letters. As the cultural prestige accorded the romantic and solitary author waned, Matthews came to embody a phenomenon that assigned cultural prestige to the practice of authorship as an activity most suited for men who could “mix.” Through his collaborative fiction, critical essays, indefatigable socializing, and, most importantly, his exchanges with other writers and literary figures, Brander Matthews drew together conflicting theories about the practice of writing in order to bolster the vision of romantic authorship for what he saw as the new and resolutely unromantic twentieth-century literary marketplace.

Brander Matthews was seen as one of the last Genteel literary critics in America. His life and work epitomized the last stand of [End Page 165] writers who sought the cultural status of “the artist” even as they participated in the marketplace. In response to the Progressive era’s emphasis upon professionalization, many writers such as Matthews tried to place the nineteenth century “man of letters” into a more modern context, creating, in effect, a “professional” man of letters. The clubbing, conversing, and collaborating that Matthews engaged in throughout his life were all part of an attempt to promote authorship as the natural outpouring of an almost spiritual commonality between individuals. Writers of this period who embraced the collaborationist paradigm, managed to retain a romantic understanding of authorship as solitary, even though the solitary nature of their vocation paradoxically lent them commonality. In contrast, writers more commonly identified with this period of American letters such as Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, or the many authors who went on to join the more radical factions of the Authors League of America, did not share the literary or social values of the “genteel” establishment. They exemplified a literary individualism, one that gave them a different kind of commonality. These writers saw that they had in common an identity predicated upon a particular kind of marketplace status.

The tensions between these two visions of literary identity eventually created the great schism that split the Authors League of America in 1916 over whether or not to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor. While the Progressive writers saw affiliation as a logical expression of commonality with other groups of writers whose identities also were constructed by marketplace relations, the genteel writers (led by Brander Matthews and his Authors Club cronies) opposed such affiliation because they saw authorial identity as predicated upon a shared reverence for romantic individualism. The collaborations of the 1890s attest to a sociability of authorship promoted to reap the advantages of a collective identity without sacrificing the patrician individualism of the nineteenth-century writer. Matthews’ participation in collaborative writing was part of a concerted effort to promote a vision of authorship that would allow the romance of inspiration to be well paid.

Being “well paid” was a relative term. Matthews was the only son of a millionaire who lost his fortune during the panic of 1873. Enough money remained, however, so that Matthews never had to rely on income earned as either author or professor. As his old friend Clayton Hamilton put it, Matthews “could practice the profession of a man of letters without ever being required to earn his living by his authorship” (84). Matthews, moreover, “was able to flourish his profession of authorship as a sort of cane—an ornamental instrument of elegance which was not required seriously for support” (84). Matthews’ spectacular...

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pp. 165-187
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