Monday, February 22, 2010

120 years of Mondays: A reflection on the Club's place in today's world

This column by Richard Nunley (a Club member emeritus who now lives in Portland, Oregon) was published in The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) on November 29, 1989.

The Monday Evening Club commemorated the 120th anniversary of its organizing at the house of Mr. Thomas F. Plunkett in Pittsfield on November 11, 1989, with a dinner at the Lenox Club the evening before last.

What, you may ask, is the Monday Evening Club?

It is one tiny thread in the complex weave of associations that make up the fabric of the life of an area. Possibly an anachronism, it and other clubs like it are a survival from a time that was geared differently, that had a perhaps firmer faith in the possibility of harmless uplift and disinterested fellowship than obtains generally today.

"What I like about the Club," Robert G. Newman, retired director of the Berkshire Athenaeum and a Club member since 1946. was quoted as saying on the occasion of the club's centenary, "is that it doesn't do any good."

The Club gets together about six times a year now for dinner and conversation.  Members take it in turns to act as host, either at home or at some comfortable inn or club that serves good food and offers space for pre- and post-prandial talk.

They also take it in turns to prepare a paper, one per meeting, which, after being read aloud, is commented on by the other members. The evening's host calls on his guests in unannounced order.  The prevents after dinner dozing off, or at least ups the hazards of doing so.

It is, so far, a men-only club.  Since, as Newman observed, it doesn't do any good, and is as close to being invisible as makes no difference.

Members from time to time discuss whether remaining a men-only club isn't a little silly in this day and age, but, like most other discussions of the club, nothing has come of it.

And it must be admitted, albeit sotto voce, that males do say more when women aren't around. Whether it is due to residual chivalry that yields the floor to a lady, or to the male's slowness in getting off the conversational mark, the fact is that when men and women meet for conversation, generally speaking, 90 percent of the conversation is conducted by the women, or else the party splits in two, the women saying interesting things to each other in the kitchen, the men hunched over the TV in the den.

Nor are most men these days afforded many opportunities to study up on some subject unrelated to their daily work and compose their conclusions in an essay.  This the club does, and members find this intellectual adventuring fun; it enlarges life.

Topics tend to be historical (in a wide sense), literary or geographical.  Last year members heard talks on Oxford, the distribution of wealth, "news management" by earlier presidencies and the history of the concept of zoning.

On Nov. 18, 1929, in the gloom of the crash, the prepared talk was suspended. "The Club spent the evening discussing its future.  It was voted to elect new members and continue the Club."

In 1932, the club heard talks on "Economic Depression," "Social Security," "Some Current Misconceptions of the Utilities," and "Are We Really To Blame?"

By the end of the decade, members were discussing "Our Most Vital Problem — World Peace," " The Labor Movement," "Dilemma of a Conservative," "Is Pacifism the Answer?"

The Club's minute books reflect history in other ways, too, especially in the directions to special summer meetings.

In 1895 the club boarded the 8:10 from Pittsfield to attend the presentation of a drinking fountain to the town of Great Barrington. ("Colonel Brown will arrange to have carriages meet the train.") In 1915 they journeyed to Perry's Peak and Morning Face in Richmond. ("Members having automobiles please invite those without to ride with them.") In 1900 they allowed two hours to travel from the post office in Pittsfield to Columbia Hall in Lebanon Springs "via the new state road." In 1894 those attending the Bryant centennial in Cummington were advised to carry a pail to water the horses, and to take oats, "as the farmers have only new hay."

In March 1924, "Mr. [William L.] Adam reported that the maid at his house had fallen downstairs and broken her arm and therefore he asked the Club to vote not to hold another meeting this season. So voted."

In the club's six-score year history, 178 men have been members.  At present about 15 are active members; none of them has a maid at his house.

But in the tradition of Franklin's Junto and 19th-century Boston's Saturday Club, they still find something worthwhile in hearing together considered thoughts on well-informed topics, in the good cheer of lively conversation, and, of course, in dining well.

In their 121st year, as they have done so many times before, they will no doubt "vote to elect new members and continue the club."

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