What’s a Salon, anyway?

Gertrude Stein in her salon, writing, c. 1920, Photograph by Man Ray, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature.

Gertrude Stein in her salon, writing, c. 1920, Photograph by Man Ray, from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature.

When I heard the phrase “literary salon,” I thought immediately of Gertrude Stein and her famous Parisian salons of the 1920s. Invited to participate in one of her events, you knew you were definitely hot shit. Couldn’t you see the flapper dresses sway, feel the crisp bite of champagne, and hear Gertrude bark at Hemingway? I’d love to have been there.

Baltimore’s thriving literary and arts community offers so many opportunities to participate in lectures, readings, and openings that one could fill one’s social calendar with one event after another. These modern salons abound, yet thinking of them in terms of Parisian excess, I couldn’t quite figure out what to expect. Who attended these events? How did one dress? Would I fit in?

Oliver's Carriage House

Oliver’s Carriage House

The first Little Patuxent Review launch reading I attended was last January. Snow drifts piled high then, too (though not as impressive as today). Oliver’s Carriage House, a stone edifice, felt welcoming and warm. Voices drifted down from the second floor. I mounted the steps and arrived to find throngs of people gathered. Three groups of chairs, arranged in rows, fanned out to face an oak podium, which stood before a great unlit fireplace. The afternoon sun poured in through high windows, casting a warm glow throughout the room.

As the attendees shed their coats, I observed that they were a mix of old and young, smooth and wrinkled. Some wore scarves and jewels, others jeans and sweaters. Some were shod with L.L.Bean duck boots while others had feet encased in modest pumps. When the moderator spoke, a reverent hush descended. We all anticipated the words to follow.

Poets recited. Essayists read. The audience laughed. We leaned forward, rapt. Tears formed in the corner’s of eyes and were wiped away with the backs of hands. We asked questions and shared refreshments. Contributors received direct feedback about the impact of their work. The whole event felt positive, reaffirming.

In short, salons aren’t the stuffy, by “invitation-only” events they once were. (Sorry, Gertrude.) They’re attended by the curious, the learners, the adventurers, the dreamers, lovers of words and art and song. Everyday people attend. People like plumbers and cooks and lawyers and teachers and parents. Sometimes, there are even teenagers.

We hope you’ll consider attending this Sunday’s salon launch of Little Patuxent Review’s Winter 2016 Issue “Myth” or any of the upcoming Salon Series jointly sponsored by LPR and the Columbia Association. All events are free and open to the public.

Still not convinced? Here are a few photos from a recent Salon Series event where guest editor Patricia VanAmburg spoke on “Pulling Adiadne’s Thread.” She discussed myths, ancient images, and symbols using her own photographs. The next Salon Series event is scheduled for February 22 at 7 pm. It features blues singer Denee Barr, who will share her repertoire of songs by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Judy Garland.

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