The Creative Communities That Changed Literature Forever
Maggie Doherty on the Writerly Life, From Concord to Asheville
There are many things I miss about pre-pandemic life: seminar tables, dinner parties, movie theaters that have been around since World War II. But the thing I find myself missing most is my community of writers. This is a small thing to lose, in comparison to what so many others have lost, but it is what I find myself longing for when I feel anxious and lonely.
For me, solitude and the social world exist in a kind of productive tension. I wouldn’t be able to think if I didn’t talk to people each day. My friends often offer new perspectives on problems that are preoccupying me. But at some point I learned that I would have to stop talking if I ever wanted to get anything down on the page.
A look at literary history shows that I’m not alone. Writers and artists have often come together to create formal and informal communities. Some did so spontaneously; others worked through existing institutions; still others created institutions of their own. These creative communities mimicked the conditions of the MFA program and the artist colony: long stretches of alone time punctuated by intense, intimate gatherings.
When I was just beginning to write, I studied these communities with admiration and interest, wondering how I might fashion a similar community for myself. The group that I became most taken with was a circle of women writers and artists that formed in the early 1960s, at the newly-founded Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study. I learned how these five women, who called themselves “The Equivalents,” tried to balance the responsibilities of motherhood with those of their creative careers. Their struggles still felt relevant, and I wondered if I might learn something from the solutions they’d found.
This is what keeps me interested in creative communities of the past: their eerie immediacy. Writing together, sharing their lives and their work, the Equivalents created something that transcended its historical moment. As a woman and a writer, I felt like I could slip into this long-gone friend group and draw my own meaning from it. This, too, is part of the appeal—I’d rather be just another person at the party than go it entirely alone.
Concord, MA, 1850s
This may be my provincialism talking, but it seems to me that the paradigmatic American creative community formed in Concord in the middle of the 19th century. Ralph Waldo Emerson may have been the hub, the Transcendental proton—but unforgettable electrons wheeled about him in an incredible give-and-take.
A stone’s throw down the road, Louisa May Alcott harbored a crush on Emerson—then helped launch American popular writing—while her father Bronson dreamt of utopia. Margaret Fuller, one of this country’s founding feminists, moved to Concord to edit The Dial and work with Emerson; the two would take long walks in the woods and talk about the problems inherent in the institution of marriage. (Emerson said of talking with Fuller: “You stretch your limbs and dilate to your utmost size.”)When Sexton and Swan displayed their collaborations at a seminar, someone in the audience whispered: “it’s like incest.” Women weren’t supposed to become so close.
Emerson rented out “The Old Manse,” a home that had belonged to his father, to newlyweds Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia Peabody for $100 a year. Thoreau planted the vegetable garden, and Herman Melville visited in 1852. And “the sage of Concord” also let Henry David Thoreau “live deliberately” on his land. The result was Walden, in 1854. Some have highlighted just how social and supported Thoreau’s supposedly solitary life was—and it’s true. But that’s one of the features of a successful creative community: material resources held by one are shared with those who need them.
On a recent visit to the Old Manse, I listened to a tour guide mock Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne as “bad tenants.” (They were short on rent and made unwelcome home improvements.) Some other tourists laughed knowingly, but I sympathized with the Hawthornes: young, in love, broke, in need of the support offered by a more established friend. My sympathy only increased as we entered a bedroom on the second floor. There, we saw the following words etched on a windowpane in thin, spidery writing: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes, 1843.” Sophia had carved this line into the window with her wedding ring on a winter day, a month after she’d slipped on ice and lost a pregnancy. Some might call it vandalism—I prefer to think of it as art.
London, UK, 1910s-1920s
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.” Virginia Woolf wrote these now-famous words in 1929, in an essay that described the different ways patriarchy—here embodied by the all-male educational institution “Oxbridge”—can thwart a woman’s creativity. Woolf was right about what writers need (particularly about the money part), but her own career demonstrates the necessity of a third factor: a vibrant intellectual community. Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury group, a community of writers and intellectuals that included her husband Leonard, her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell; Bell’s husband, the art critic Clive Bell; the novelist E.M. Forster; the economist John Maynard Keynes; the biographer Lytton Strachey; and other artists, writers, and thinkers.
The Bloomsbury group exhibits several characteristics of creative communities: the rejection of bourgeois mores, political leftism (if not always activism), and lots of complicated romantic entanglements. The last of these followed from the first two. As Katie Roiphe puts it in Uncommon Arrangements, members of the Bloomsbury group “valued the idea of breaking down the normal barriers between people; they valued anarchic intellectual connections and rogue sparks and passions that transcended mere physical attraction.” There were open marriages, love triangles, sexual ambiguity—but for the most part, there was remarkably little conflict. Take this example: for a period of time, Vanessa Bell lived under the same roof as her former lover Roger Fry, her sometimes lover Duncan Grant, and Grant’s lover David Garnett. Everyone got along—or at least got along well enough.We still need these communities, both institutionalized and spontaneous. We need the inspiration, the affirmation, and even the conflict that we find there.
In my experience, these romantic arrangements are more common than not in youthful literary circles, but they’re rarely so peaceable, or so enduring. Perhaps this is because of the care and craft that went into making Bloomsbury: in Roiphe’s words, these innovative artists “tended their friendships like gardens, unlike most adults.”
Paris, France, 1920s-1930s
Right around the same time that the Bloomsbury group gathered in London, American expats got together across the channel, in the sixth arrondissement in Paris. They met at the Café des Flores, the Café des Deux Magots, and at 27 rue de Fleurus, the home of the writer Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. Stein had lived in Paris since 1903, when she followed her brother overseas. The Steins began collecting art and artists both: they acquired paintings by Cézanne, Gaugin, Matisse, and Picasso, who became one of Stein’s close friends and began bringing artists and intellectuals over to visit. Stein hosted regular salons; guests included many of the writers we now associated with the literary movement called modernism: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Ezra Pound. Together, they tried to create a new kind of literary expression, one that prized immediacy, innovation, and somehow simplicity and difficulty both.
Stein, whose Tender Buttons and Three Lives are now part of modernism’s canon, was something of a gatekeeper: she facilitated careers and made connections for writers she deemed worthy. Although some have argued that Pound was the central figure of Modernism, we might equally attribute the movement to Stein. According to Hemingway, who memorialized (and fictionalized) this community in his memoir A Moveable Feast, she was like a “Roman Emperor.” Up-and-coming writers sought her friendship, her knowledge, her blessing. Creative communities often have a central figure—Emerson in Concord, Stein in Paris—around whom the other members orbit. This can be a genial situation for all parties—unless and until there’s a falling out. Eventually, the younger writers find success on their own and become less enamored of their mentor. Hemingway eventually soured on Stein. “In the end everyone, or not quite everyone, made friends again in order not to be stuffy or righteous,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast. “But I could never make friends again truly, not in my heart nor in my head.”
Asheville, NC, 1940s-1950s
“The world as it is isn’t worth saving,” declared John Andrew Rice, one of the founders of Black Mountain College. “It must be made over.” Like the Modernist dictum to “make it new,” this principle shaped Black Mountain from its founding in 1933 through its closure in 1958. During these years, an astonishing number of experimental and soon-to-be famous poets, artists, musicians, and choreographers passed through the college’s halls. An incomplete list: poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan; artists Ruth Asawa, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, and Cy Twombly; the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and the composer John Cage.
But Black Mountain wasn’t a conservatory: it was a liberal arts college, attended largely by those who never became professional artists. (Only 55 students graduated from the college with degrees.) Despite its unusual curriculum (which some found highly suspect), Black Mountain is nonetheless representative of a boom time for American higher education. Thanks to the G. I. Bill, more Americans were going to college, and the veterans who enrolled at Black Mountain kept the struggling college afloat. From the 1940s onward, universities began to play an increasingly central role in the lives of artists: they offered degrees and credentials, teaching posts and resources. Some artists happily ensconced themselves in prestigious research institutions. Others styled themselves as rebels—and for them, there was Black Mountain.
Led by Josef and Anni Albers, German artists and emigrés, the school often had to make do with few resources. Albers turned this lack into advantage, encouraging his students to find their materials among the detritus of everyday life, to see the world in a new way. One can see the link between this way of looking and the collages of Rauschenberg, who arrived at Black Mountain in 1948, the same year of Cage’s first visit.That’s one of the features of a successful creative community: material resources held by one are shared with those who need them.
A liberal arts college, Black Mountain was governed by two philosophies: the “learn by doing” philosophy espoused by the American pragmatist John Dewey (who was himself influenced by German educational philosophy) and the aesthetic principles of Bauhaus. The art created at Black Mountain was the product of scarcity, spontaneity, and serendipity. “Happenings” were held, during which Olson would read poems, Cage would play Edith Piaf recordings at altered speed, and Cunningham would allow himself to be chased by a dog. Found objects—sticks, trash, a cow paddle—made their way into fine art. The place could be chaotic, and ridden with conflict, but it also produced incredible collaborations, and many of the artists who spent time there went on to impressive careers. If there’s one lesson to be drawn from Black Mountain, it might be that conditions of deprivation can inspire creativity.
Cambridge, MA, 1960s
Of course, resources do help, especially when granted to those who have so long done without them. This was the theory behind the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, founded in 1960 by Mary Ingraham Bunting, the newly appointed president of Radcliffe College. In Bunting’s view, too many women put their creative careers on pause when they married and had children, and they often found it difficult to restart their professional lives once their children were of school age.
The Institute offered a group of twenty-four talented women the resources they would need to jumpstart their creative work: a stipend of up to $3,000 dollars (roughly $26,000 today), access to Harvard University’s libraries and resources, and an office in which to work—Woolf’s “room of one’s own.” The women admitted to the Institute also found themselves ensconced in the kind of community that was hard to come by before the women’s liberation movement changed everything: a community of creative, ambitious, driven women.
In my book The Equivalents, I tell the story of the early years of the Institute and how five artists who met there formed a friend group, a kind of institute within the Institute. They were the poets Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, the writer Tillie Olsen, the painter Barbara Swan, and the sculptor Marianna Pineda. In a joking reference to the requirements for Institute applicants—that they possess a Ph.D. of “the equivalent” of artistic accomplishment—the friends called themselves “The Equivalents.” During their time at the Institute, they swapped books (including Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own), collaborated on projects, and debated the merits of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Some of the other fellows were shocked by the creative intimacy they witnessed: when Sexton and Swan displayed their collaborations at a seminar, someone in the audience whispered, “it’s like incest.” Women weren’t supposed to become so close.
The group stayed close even after their fellowships ran out. Their friendships weren’t always easy: there were rivalries, and misunderstandings, and long stretches of silence. But the mere existence of this friend group is a marvel, given the way midcentury America often thwarted female intimacy. The Equivalents experienced the transition from the cloistered 1950s to the liberated 1960s, and the art and writing they produced together helped facilitate the next phase of the American feminism.
New York, NY, 1970s
In February 1977, 17 black women gathered at the apartment of the poet June Jordan. Those presented included Margo Jefferson, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Calling themselves, “The Sisterhood,” they had come together to talk about the obstacles Black women writers often faced when they attempted to publish their work. At the end of the meeting, after consuming adequate gumbo, pie, and champagne, the women resolved to take two major steps to combat structural barriers to entering the publishing world: infiltrate major magazines and pressure them to publish more Black women, and found their own alternative press.
While some of the writers present on that day are now well known, the Sisterhood itself hasn’t received as much critical or scholarly attention. (I learned about the Sisterhood through advising an undergraduate thesis by Megan Jones.) This isn’t all that surprising: the work of Black women artists is often criminally underrecognized. But it’s also true that the members of the Sisterhood determined to work in subtle ways: they planned to gain editorships at existing glossy magazines like Ms. and Essence and then use their positions to help shift the politics of these publications and to commission different kinds of writers. They eventually realized the limits of this strategy: popular magazines were in the pocket of advertisers, and they wouldn’t always run the kind of bold, groundbreaking work that writers like Walker and Jordan wanted to publish.
Three years after that first meeting, in a Boston apartment, two members of the Sisterhood decided to found a press of their own. Lorde and the scholar Barbara Smith founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. The name was apt: the small, largely unpaid staff worked mostly at Smith’s kitchen table. The press resolved that they wouldn’t take any foundation money or money from large donors, who would want to have influence over the press’s decisions. Theirs would be an “autonomous outlet for feminist and Lesbian of color writers.” By the end of the 1980s, the press had published eight books and five pamphlets, including works that are now mainstays of feminist studies.
Communities can be important for any writer, even one as established as Emerson or as impressive as Stein. But they are most important for those writers and artists who would falter without these forms of mutual aid: the broke, the young, the marginalized, the rebels. How long would readers have had to wait for Hawthorne’s novels, had he not had a temporary home? Would Cage and Cunningham have made their masterpieces if they hadn’t met impassioned young people in Asheville? What would literary history look like if there were no alternatives to mainstream publishing? Or no fellowships for those writers and artists who were otherwise confined to the home?
We still need these communities, both institutionalized and spontaneous. We need the inspiration, the affirmation, and even the conflict that we find there. There may be ways to sustain these communities even in an age of isolation—I’ve been thrilled to see so many group readings and book clubs pop up on screens. Though I long to sit around a friend’s kitchen table, these digital encounters are enough for now.
The Equivalents by Maggie Doherty is available now via Knopf.