Salons and Beyond

It’s high time we start having civil, intelligent, face-to-face conversations again.

  • These days, our large-scale institutions don't seem to be doing famously well at educating, legislating, healing, employing, producing, governing, or even entertaining, so the ardor for meaningful conversation remains unquenched and is worth fanning.
    Photo by Flickr/Michael Coughlan

Editor’s note: In the early 1990s, Utne Reader was one of the primary figures in the resurgence of salons—intimate gatherings for face-to-face conversation and idea exchange. The following article from the March/April 1991 issue was and still is an excellent primer to salons for the uninitiated, and is being excerpted here to help spark another salon resurgence. For information on how you can start or join a salon, visit Utne Reader's Guide to Salons.

It was really a salon that my friend Joan and I attended at the Neahtawanta Inn near Traverse City, Michigan, the night after Thanksgiving, although in these parts they tend to be called potlucks. Joan was up visiting from Washington, D.C., taking a break from prosecuting drug fiends. Our hosts, Sally and Bob, are longtime ecology and peace activists and organizers. Sally teaches yoga, also sometimes works in classrooms with developmentally disabled kids. Bob was once a high school science teacher and ran a small screen printing business for a while. As a citizen activist he now teaches science to his county commissioners, constantly nudging local public policy toward sustainability. Jeff, who manages a local computer store, and his wife Lee, a teacher, were part of the group around the two tables.

Three other couples rounded out the party. As we enjoyed the heaps of good food we all had brought, our conversation was general, a mix of news and opinion, giggles and commiseration. When it came to national politics, our repartee, it must be admitted, was a little cynical, but it all strengthened our local sense of community and improved our knowledge of one another. It was fun and—even better—it was nourishing to be talking about the things that matter, seeing old and new friends at particular moments in their lives.  We were mutually interested and caring in appropriate degree, fostering our little subculture’s vision of peace and sustainability.

Could an evening like that change the world? Not all by itself, certainly, but a thousand widely scattered variations on it would be a respectable beginning. Small groups have always been the locus of change. What they do, in a sometimes offhand way, is constellate new cultural forms and give birth to the unexpected. Sometimes the talk is the thing, sometimes the feeling. When we risk talking about something we really care about it’s infectious. Like any good infection, such talk can produce heat, a fever of intellectual excitement. People seem to enjoy participation in a group that’s known to be making a creative contribution. Word gets around and Hey! Presto! You are hip for real.

Hankering to be hip has long been a basic incentive to salon participation. However frivolous the glitter of wit, it holds an undying fascination, as evidenced by the enshrinement of the Algonquin Round Table. One of America’s most famous salons, it was a brilliant, boozy writers’ luncheon of the 1920s. Convened daily at the cozily handsome Algonquin Hotel, just across the street from the offices of The New Yorker, the Round Table was a salad-days confab for the likes of Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, Alexander Woolcott, George S. Kaufman, Franklin Pierce Adams, Ring Lardner, and many of Broadway’s leading lights. It was their conversational playground before they and it became legendary, which is probably why they felt free enough to be so witty.

For most of human history it’s been like this, people banding together in little social units, larger than the family, smaller than the tribe. In earlier times, the nature and propriety of every form of relationship were well understood. People knew how to be together in groups like lungs knew how to breathe. Indeed, some hold that the Neolithic era marked a high point in the development of human culture, that cavewomen and cavemen were riffing around their campfires, sharing tales of children’s antics, and gathering expeditions in the bush in new songs that took shape over needles and sinew.

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