Making Space: A Brief History of Literary Salons, Past and Present

By Rosalind Jana

Picture the scene: Paris. The 1920s. Home to a period now written about, pondered on, and idealized into a glittering myth—a thriving intellectual sphere full of circulating ideas and great works of literature in progress. Enter Mina Loy: poet, modernist, feminist manifesto writer, and mysterious individual flitting between the Futurists and other artistic groups. In this city, she’s managed to achieve a kind of fabled existence, with her work under multiple pseudonyms and stories swirling around her leading some to claim that she might not even exist. “Mina Loy” is but a fiction, a figure believed to be, as described by Roger Conover, “a forged persona, a hoax-of-critics.” Loy responds with fanfare. She makes an appearance at author, poet, and socialite Natalie Barney’s literary salon on Rue Jacob to confirm that, yes, she is in fact a living, breathing, walking human being. She exists. 

Aside from the sheer deliciousness of this tale, it’s telling that Loy chose Barney’s salon as the place to make her presence known. Established during the fertile early 20-century era of literary salons in Paris, Barney’s events—held every Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.—hosted a roster of the era’s goods and greats. Over the years, its visitors included Edna St. Vincent Millay, Truman Capote, Isadora Duncan, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein (who also held her own salon). Here, one was guaranteed interesting conversation and a free exchange of ideas. Here, one might—as Loy intended—feel free to cause a stir. 

Salon is, of course, a French word, derived from the Italian salone. The trajectory of the word mirrors the trajectory of what it describes. The salon concept first appeared in Italy in the 15th-century and rapidly proved itself popular in France from the 17th-century onwards. Roughly speaking, it suggests an intimate gathering, often convened in a domestic setting. And notably, unlike many other overlapping literary spheres, it has long held a close association to women. Many of the great salonnières throughout history were female. Some salons were female-only, as with Britain’s 18th-century Blue Stockings Society—an organization set up by Elizabeth Montagu in the 1750s, which invited a select group of women to discuss literature and social change—while others allowed for a wide variety of visitors to mingle, usually under the keen eye of a smart matriarch. 

Other forms of debate and exchange flourished, too. While salons featured in England’s cultural landscape, an altogether more male-centric sphere preceded (and co-existed alongside) them: the coffeehouse. First emerging in the 17th and 18th-centuries, they served as another social space that prided itself on conversation, dialogue, and public debate. Coffeehouses were billed as utilitarian—somewhere for anyone, regardless of rank or status, to pick up the thread of an idea and run with it (while stimulated by a good dose of caffeine). Of course, the reality was somewhat different. Snobbery abounded. Certain forms of genteel, polite conversation were valued above others. The whole scene was riven by class. And indicative of its gendered priorities, women were not invited. 

Coffeehouse culture nevertheless proved significant. It developed the idea of conversation as something to be conducted publicly, as well as fostered the fledgling print trade of periodicals: The Tatler and The Spectator both came into existence during this new era of public chatter. A Female Tatler also made a short-lived appearance, set up in a kind of mock-rivalry with The Tatler. As with its counterpart publications, it specialized in withering sarcasm and raucous articles about London life, all written by a series of personas: first by a Mrs. Crackenthorpe and then “The Society of Ladies.” It quickly folded. Yet it indicated (as with the shorter-lived Female Spectator) that women were taking note of the spheres from which they were excluded and responding with their own sharp wit.  

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I remember the moment when I realized that, much as I loved the idea of coffeehouses, I wouldn’t have been especially welcome at them. It’s a strange thing to grow up, recognize, and reconcile this knowledge: Many of the spaces and movements in history that sound so exciting to me in theory would not have opened their doors to me, had I been around then, on the basis of my gender. Delving into the history of women-led salons, on the other hand, has proven itself a welcome antidote to this sense of exclusion. While such salons were still often elitist, mainly favoring privileged women with money and social status, there’s still something compelling about the notion of women hosting and facilitating these kinds of conversations. Or maybe I’m still slightly dazzled by the glamour of it all—of rubbing shoulders and parrying words with such extraordinary thinkers, creators, and writers.  

Literary salons—both in their historical and contemporary iterations—have always existed as spaces rife with multiplicity and contradiction: for performance, for personal flourish, for proving you run in the right circles, or for turning up simply to be seen. Yet they also serve as spaces where the crackling sparks of ideas ignite, where thoughts and arguments can be bounced around and built on. In certain circumstances, they can also be read as safe spaces —ones where women in particular might speak with ease. 

Where do these kinds of spaces exist now? People are still trying to build on the power of the word “salon” itself. Literary events, often branded as “salons,” tap into the word’s cultural capital—that web of associations suggesting some kind of exclusivity, or at least a certain strain of intellectual brilliance. Book clubs for women abound. And plenty of people still meet more casually in coffee shops to talk literature, politics, and plenty else. But some of these dialogues have also migrated online. If the principal of the salon was ultimately one of exchange—of sharing and receiving thoughts—then newsletters and blogs serve as natural inheritors of the legacy, alongside various other forms of social media. 

What many of these digital platforms offer up, if you choose to use them in this way, is the chance to both curate a circle of like-minded people and to learn about and engage with unfamiliar cultures and subcultures. Many an art collective has been born on Tumblr and countless friendships forged through Instagram. Even personal blogs, as I discovered when I started my own—now more than a third of my life ago—can serve as spaces ripe for fostering a global community. 

More recently, the newsletter and the podcast—two forms of media currently being utilized to particular effect by young women—have offered the opportunity to carve out even more intimate digital spaces. We can listen to people talk as we go about our day, headphones in ears, or have their thoughts and recommended reading land directly into our inboxes once a week. From Ana Kinsella’s TinyLetter, “The London Review of Looks” where she details one person she’s observed around the city each week, to Emma Gannon’s podcast, “Ctrl Alt Delete,” with its explorations of woman helping to shape online culture, there are all sorts of possibilities. Perhaps these types of dialogue feel more one-sided. They may not share the same bouncing, crackling energy that comes with the back-and-forth interplay between a group of people gathered in a room. Still, they undoubtedly share the same principles of exploration and discussion.

Besides, as with the salon, they’re all spaces defined, and in some ways, enhanced by, their tensions. They are performative, personally tailored spaces for women to meet and communicate with each other, and a prime example of registering a presence—whether physical or, nowadays, digital—in order to be seen. On the web, visibility is everything. But these modern-day forms of salon culture are just as much about diverse ideas and healthy debate, and, ideally, make room for a much wider range of voices. We’ve always wanted to talk. Now there are new opportunities to do so—new ways of bartering words. If only Mina Loy could see us now. ★