You have to work hard to imagine the past among Euclid Avenue's lube shops and deserted lots. In stretches, it's easier to conjure the original packed-dirt Indian trail than the Millionaires' Row mansions.
But if you peer just around the corner onto Prospect, you'll discover a well-maintained architectural gem — the dark, imposing and sturdy George Merwin House — and the piece of glorious and imperfect history it protects.
Built by Charles Heard in 1838 and moved to its present location in 1895, the building has housed the Rowfant Club since 1892, when a group of well-to-do Cleveland men — book collectors and aficionados — banded together for "the critical study of books in their various capacities to please the mind of man." Once private publishers of its own "editions of books, prints, and kindred matter," the Rowfant Club has supported book talk, book collecting and book arts ever since.
It's hard to find the Rowfant Club and even harder to write about it because the club abhors publicity. Any member who causes the club's name to appear in print is deemed guilty of "a gross impropriety and an abuse of the privileges of the club." So Clevelanders know little about the rich and checkered history of one of America's two remaining all-male bibliophile clubs. I found it; even paid it a visit. And, because I'm not allowed to be a member, I can tell you about it.
I discovered the Rowfant Club shortly after joining Oberlin College's English department. Ray English, the college's library director and a nonresident member of the club, invited me to give a lecture at an upcoming monthly meeting. "But I'm not sure you're going to want to accept the invitation," he added.
Ray feared I might object on political grounds, since women invited as guest presenters may stay for dinner but absolutely cannot become members. In fact, after her speaking engagement before the group, local TV celeb Dorothy Fuldheim lambasted the policy, declaring it "unbelievable that a group of highly intellectual men … should hold such outdated attitudes toward women. … It is disgraceful."
Maybe so, but my fascination with this venerable old boys' book club pushed aside any feminist qualms: I needed to check this place out.
The truth is, I like books, I like ritual and I like to know that some things carry on unchanged. My fascination with the Rowfant Club is gloriously politically incorrect. I've always been a girl who loves old boys' clubs with their leather chairs, mixed drinks and ashtrays on every table. And I've always loved books as objects: I'm not ashamed to fetishize pretty covers, nice paper, an author's signature. I channel these interests into scholarship: I study books and book culture during turn-of-the-century America.
At the Rowfant Club, I presented a paper on the publishing history of Theodore Dreiser's 1900 "Sister Carrie." I argued that Americans during that moment of industrialization were longing for a pre-industrial past. Not coincidently, the Rowfant Club, the Grolier Club, the Caxton Club and other storied book clubs sprouted up at the same time, in part to support fine-press, non-machine-made books.
So, on a typically gray, 40-degree Cleveland evening, Ray took me to the club, filling me in on a bit of history as we drove.
The Merwin House is one of Cleveland's oldest inhabited houses and one of the few remaining legacies of Cleveland's robber-baron past. Since then, Rowfant's member rolls have changed little. Members are still upstanding, well-heeled businessmen, stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors, university faculty, librarians and other professionals. Many are book collectors. For these men, preserving tradition has meant braving an increasingly seedy and forbidding neighborhood where members have been solicited by prostitutes and robbed. The strict no-publicity policy has kept the name "Rowfant Club" out of police reports.
It's not as if many would recognize the name anyway. Rowfant was the home of a well-known British book collector, Frederick Locker-Lampson. It was chosen instead of the Gopher Club, suggested to indicate "the eagerness of bookmen to ‘go for' excellent and rare books." And though it didn't stick, the pesky gopher is well grounded in many of the club's traditions.
Since gophers are relatives of groundhogs, the Rowfant Club meets annually on Groundhog Day (Candlemas). The confusion between gophers and groundhogs also gave the club its mascot — and a stained-glass woodchuck in the Rowfant building. Each Rowfant member has his own cast-bronze woodchuck candlestick in homage to the club's motto ("Light seeking Light doth Light of Light beguile") that is lit by the president in the annual Candlemas procession.
As they have for more than a century at the weekly Wednesday meetings, each member places his candlestick on the table to reserve a spot for dinner, which is prepared in the club's kitchen and served by a female staff. A speaker, often a national expert on book collecting, book culture or fine printing, precedes dinner in the lecture hall.
A black-tie dinner kicks off each year. And there's a Friday lunch group, where members give talks, as well as summer picnics that occasionally include spouses, and an annual book auction, which actually prompted the publicity ban in 1895 after a newspaper article poked fun at it.
Although I would gladly have donned a ball gown and joined them for the black-tie dinner, my dream of being one of the boys was fulfilled the Wednesday night they gathered to hear me speak. Dressed in suits, with impeccable manners to match, they took my coat, offered me a drink and chatted with me before directing me to the lectern at the front of a room filled with sturdy wooden chairs. And about 30, mainly elderly men. It was far more civilized and glamorous than the sterile hotel conference rooms where academics meet to exchange ideas.
As I spoke, I relished being in one of the few places left where educated, informed people gather to discuss literature and books because — well, just because.
After my talk, members returned their candlesticks to the mantel next to their friends' and those of members long deceased. When a member of the club dies, his candlestick is capped in a "Survivor"-like ceremony and memorialized on the mantel. Each of the nearly 1,000 woodchucks is individually designed and crafted, a source of pride that prompted a 1959 book, "The Rowfant Candlesticks," on their history and design.
Dinner conversation turned from 20th-century publishing practices to collecting to how Oberlin undergrads respond to Dreiser's dense, dated novel. And though it never came up in conversation, I discovered the club's remarkable good humor about its controversial positions — and some other quirky rituals — by reading through dusty Rowfant publications I found in archives around Northeast Ohio.
The Fuldheim article, for instance, was printed in a club publication. And though the club's position has never wavered on women, rumor has it some have tried to infiltrate the club by showing up at the door asking to hear a scheduled lecture (they were politely shooed away) or asking to be proposed for membership.
In a 1983 volume of "Wrongfontia," containing club parodies and lore, a poem begins by poking fun at the members ("We self-styled Baedekers of books, …/Stuffed shirts led by a stuffed groundhog)," but concludes, "So, if your wives should ever sneer/When they of Rowfant antics hear,/Just turn to them that ‘old deaf ear,'/With, ‘This is as we like it, dear.' "
For at least one member, there was good reason for keeping his wife in the dark about club activities. Upon her husband's death, the wife expressed her gratitude for the club that entertained her husband every Friday night. But her husband never actually came to the club. As a member wrote, "After his death it was difficult to find anyone who knew him well enough to cap his candle. But his widow always had a warm spot in her heart for Rowfant; so, evidently, did someone else."
Perhaps the club's darkest time occurred in 1902, when Charles Chestnutt, an African-American author and lawyer, was proposed for membership. The Council of Fellowes voted on Chestnutt's membership by depositing either a white or black ball into a ballot box. Two black balls denied membership.
When Chestnutt was blackballed, he retaliated by publishing a short story, "Baxter's Procrustes," that portrays the Rowfant Club as a group of windbags who prize books as collectible objects but have no interest in literature. In the story, a man named Jones is a member of the Bodleian Club, "composed of gentlemen of culture who are very interested in books and book-collecting." Jones plays a hoax on the gentlemen by printing a book using the highest-quality materials, including fine paper, binding, print and typesetting. The book is printed in an edition of 50 and sealed with a transparent wrapper, making it so highly prized that buyers are reluctant to unwrap the book to actually read it. This doesn't stop some members lauding its literary merits, however. One visitor, intrigued, takes off the wrapping to read "Procrustes" and discovers it to be full of blank pages.
Despite Chestnutt's public parody of it, the Rowfant Club eventually granted him membership in 1910, after which he gave speeches about prominent African Americans at Friday lunches. In 1966, they published editions of Chestnutt's work, including "Baxter's Procrustes."
Indeed, the Rowfant Club remains like "Procrustes." It's an exquisitely printed, limited-edition blank book. It's pretty, nice to have somewhere on the shelf and valuable. But you can't help thinking that more people should have a chance to appreciate it. And once you open it up, it's missing something.
Still, I enjoyed my evening at the club. Ironically, the Rowfant Club seemed to me, that night, a more vital way to make literature and history relevant in our getting-and-spending modern world than does the artificial four-year sleepover camp that is a liberal-arts education.
Or maybe peccadilloes and skull-and-bones-type rituals just take on an amber glow after a pre-lecture drink and a smart question-and-answer session.
Unlike Dorothy Fuldheim, I don't think it disgraceful that women aren't allowed to join. As Groucho Marx famously quipped, if they were to have me as a member, I wouldn't want to belong. The Rowfant Club would become a far less interesting place. They'd lose their tenacious grip on history; their impersonation of a bygone era would ring hollow. I'd have to take them on for being elitist, outmoded and detached from the world today's Euclid Avenue represents.
I just like the thought that every Wednesday night Cleveland bookmen are trudging across a deserted downtown parking lot, entering well-appointed rooms to talk binding and typesetting and, at dinner, lighting their woodchuck candlesticks, bumping elbows in good sexist cheer.