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Nat Benchley

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"15 Minutes" vs. 90 Years: How the Algonquin Round-Table Went Viral Before the Internet

Posted: 11/13/09 09:00 AM ET

Anywhere there is printing these days (ink or pixels), you will find references to the Algonquin Round Table. Sports bloggers deriding the quality of the exchanges of their followers gently chide them by bemoaning, "Well, this isn't exactly the Algonquin Round Table, is it kid. In the introduction to the 2009 book Twitter Wit: Brilliance in 140 Characters or Less, Editor Nick Douglas explains that "the Twitter wits don't consider themselves an Algonquin Round Table, no matter how many times I try to label them as such." And in an October 2009, online article about an infamous wall of graffiti (!), Washington Post Staff Writer Michael Grunwald wrote: "And just as New York's intellectuals of the 1920s had their Algonquin Round Table, the city's legendary graffiti taggers of the 1970s and '80s had the 149th Street subway station in the Bronx, a salon where the elite could meet to bicker, swap ideas and admire their own scribblings."

So, what is it with the adulation of a bunch of (as one editor recently dubbed them) "tipsy quipsters" who gathered for lunch at a Manhattan hotel nearly every day for 10 years beginning 90 years ago? How did a clot of critics and journalists and humorists go "viral" before there was an Internet?

Well, the most obvious answer is that they gathered at a time when word skills were highly prized. Remember that in the post-World War I period, the entertainment of the day consisted largely of reading (newspaper, books, innumerable magazines) and going to live theater. So people who created that entertainment and wrote about it were highly regarded (sometimes beyond their true merit). After victory in "the war to end all wars" there was a certain giddiness which fostered an appreciation of new and absurd strains of humor. Audiences were willing to find things funny which might previously just have been dismissed. Writers were allowed to experiment with what interested them and not just having to write for a paycheck.

Into this atmosphere ambled a group of aspiring writers, many of whom were still trying to find their predominant form. They were in large part shepherded by Franklin P. Adams, the "godfather" of the Round Table, who gave many of them their first exposure in his "Conning Tower" column (Dorothy Parker said, "He raised me from a couplet."). They found work as critics and columnists in New York, where their exposure was at the maximum. They wrote a lot, for demanding editors, and their styles developed quickly. And, to be perfectly, Frank, [sic] they often wrote about each other's works, a process known as "logrolling" which is still practiced today, often preceded by the phrase "full disclosure...." So their notoriety grew geometrically.

Then there were, of course, the lunches at the Algonquin Hotel. Word spread so far and fast about the habits of these quipsters that people began talking and writing about the writers. And that's where -- I believe -- a certain amount of the misunderstanding arises. Because it is now easier to focus on the quipping and clowning than on the really good writing that launched them all. Anthologies and collections of their best bon mots have been in print for decades, immortalizing them among the most quoted of notables.

But that attention ignores the reasons why they gained attention in the first place and why they hold it nine decades later. These were well-read, thoughtful writers, concerned about the craft of putting words together in meaningful strings. True, they could be mean if they disliked a piece of entertainment ("this is one of those plays in which the actors all unfortunately enunciated very clearly," her acting "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B"), but they weren't just shouting epithets and insults at full voice. It is a very long road from "I think your slogan 'Liberty or Death' is splendid and whichever one you decide on will be all right with me" to "You Lie!"

Today, an awful lot of people are spewing words into the ether just because they can, which is seldom a good enough reason. Information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not intelligence. Just because you can share a brain blip doesn't mean you should. Writers today who want their words understood and remembered would do well to think before hitting the "return" or "send" keys, and possibly even consider an antique process called "editing." Even those who don't want to read Strunk &/or White would do well to remember that the power of words often lies in the choice of fewer, more effective ones (he said, running on and on). Particularly considering the great potential for misunderstanding words on a computer screen, it is often a good idea these days to actually slow down the speed of writing and responding. Personally, I believe that one well-reasoned, edited essay is worth 400 Tweets.

Full disclosure: I write this as co-editor of a recently-published volume titled The Lost Algonquin Round Table, in which Kevin C. Fitzpatrick and I collected a slew of the earlier writings of this group in order to examine how and why they gained attention.

Even fuller disclosure: I was the editor who dubbed them "tipsy quipsters" (see paragraph five, above).

So, given all the different ways the name of the group is used (and abused) and misunderstood these days, it seems appropriate to examine what made them famous, why we should still care and how their story reflects in today's society and media. Obviously, the world -- and the speed of delivery of written messages -- has changed dramatically since their day. But with the assumption that they were all very clever, popular, creative types, we might posit how they would appear in today's world. Tweeters? Bloggers? Action figures?

Answers and opinions are there aplenty. And we hope to tap into as many of them as time and temperaments allow when we honor the Round Table with 21st-Century writers at the one and only Algonquin Hotel on Monday, November 16. An eclectic group consisting of Jane Green, Joel Stein, Paula Froelich, and Michael Musto will be moderated by the grandson of one of the founding members of the original group, namely, moi.

It should be a fun evening and an opportunity to examine the group of whom it was said:

"They practiced the Elevated Eyebrow School of Journalism: you can say anything you want, as long as you say it in evening clothes." (Robert Benchley)

"You get indicted for your inflections around this table." (ibid), and

"Conversation was like oxygen to us." (Marc Connelly)

*The commemoration of the Algonquin Round Table on Monday, November 16, 2009 is available to the public. Purchase your tickets here.