Jake ‘The Barber’ and the Electronic Frontier
Musings on the Future of The Chicago Literary Club in an Electronic World
By Francis A. Lackner, Jr.
Presented to The Chicago Literary Club
March 17, 2008
Francis A. Lackner, Jr. in all media
In 1943 The Chicago Literary Club published an essay by Thomas Chalfont McConnell which was first read on March 1 of that year, burdened with a title nearly as long as the paper itself: “Luck and Witless Virtue Vs. Guile, In Which an English Clergyman Proves the Nemesis of John (“Jake the Barber”) Factor, Alias J. Wise, Alias H. Guest.” Factor was a Chicago miscreant, who in the pursuit of liberty and the avoidance of capture in the face of the law hied himself to England and career refreshment. McConnell was a noted Chicago prosecutor of the time, hot on the trail of Factor until his removal to other shores. The English clergyman was an inconsequential dupe whose outrage at being swindled eventually led to McConnell’s successful extradition and prosecution of Factor. The recounting of this episode resulted in the paper, whose full details you can read at your leisure on the Club’s website. The paper itself was duly filed at the Newberry Library, with the published copies gathering dust on the bookshelves of the members.
And there the matter might have lain, dormant in the Newberry Library, except for another fortuitous chain of events: an unknown early member started collecting the Club’s papers as they were published, and eventually passed this collection to Byers Wilcox rather than disperse them to his heirs and the used book stalls. Wilcox in his turn continued to collect the papers and eventually passed them to Herman Lackner. Herman, as the years wore on, passed this trove to me.
I was at one time also the Recording Secretary of the Club, in that distant past when we actually had both a Corresponding and a Recording Secretary. Then, as now, to the dismay of the Chair of Arrangements and Exercises, speakers drop out of the program they have so meticulously arranged, sometimes without warning. When no other resource can be found, a Classic Night is declared, with the intention of reading an excellent paper from the past that no member present is likely to have heard. It was my practice as Secretary to carry with me one or two of this trove from Herman against unforeseen illnesses, inconvenient business trips, and other errata.
On January 29, 1997, by which time I had moved on to serve as the Club President, such an instance arose, and the McConnell paper was read by me as an instant Classic. At that time, we had recently started publishing a newsletter, at the suggestion of former President John Gerlits, as a means to keep the membership informed of Club happenings and as a summary of the papers read. Among the papers summarized was the McConnell essay.
Manly Mumford had started to work with the idea of a Club website at about this time, partly as a service to the Club, and I suspect partly from his own curiosity about computers and the Internet. The Internet was much more primitive in those archaic days, and the website was much smaller. One of the items Manly published online, however, was the newsletter.
Jake the Barber was the black sheep of a much more substantial family, whose name is perhaps more familiar in the guise of the Max Factor cosmetics line. When his luck ran out against McConnell, Jake disappeared from sight, including that of his family. One may surmise that Max Factor may not have wanted too close an association with his ne’er-do-well brother, and hushed up the connection, but in any event, the connection was lost to his descendants.
One such descendant, Donald Factor of London, was searching the Internet one day in 1998 in hopes of finding any substantive information on his long-lost uncle, and happened across the title of the McConnell essay from the reference in the newsletter. With some excitement, he sent an electronic mail message to Manly in hopes of obtaining an electronic copy of the paper. Since I had read the paper and had the original paper copy of the essay, Manly approached me with this request. It was an ‘a-ha’ moment.
Ten years further on, scanning documents and sending the copies by email is not front-page news. Then, there were more hurdles. We were concerned about any copyright claims; fortunately McConnell had long since passed away, and we decided that in his absence, the Club would assume the rights. We were uncertain about the propriety of releasing Club documents into the wider world where we would have no control over their use, but decided that wider dissemination could only benefit the Club. Lastly, the technical hurdles of converting an antique paper document to an electronic format that could be sent via the Internet were substantial. Ultimately, I scanned the original to a WordPerfect document file. Scanners being in their infancy then, Manly and I shared the proof-reading duties, and finally Manly sent the result to the Factor family.
I have recounted this episode partly to convey Club lore, but more because the episode marks the point where we first realized that our website had an interest to people outside our own Club circle, and that it could make a contribution to the wider world. It was after this, and as part of the 125th Anniversary celebration, that Manly first started to convert the Roll of Members to electronic form, and to assemble the design of the website in the form it now holds. Manly recounted much of the early history of the Internet and of our website in his 1998 essay, “On Line,” which you can also read online at the club website.
As Manly found himself terminally ill in 2002, he asked if I would assume the duties of Webmaster, and I accepted. The Appendices not added by Manly were added to the site in 2004. The Histories of the Club followed in 2005, and the published papers in 2006. The goal in this has been to make available to all the members all of the material published by the Club since its inception, and this has been substantially completed.
Our Club has, until recent years, been a collegial, somewhat insular, exclusively Chicago institution with a strong literary and social tradition. The Internet, or at least the World-Wide-Web component of it, is highly visual, interactive, and global. What are the characteristics of our Club? What do we know of the nature of the Internet? How can the Internet enhance our Club, and in what ways can it allow us to serve a wider or changed purpose? Given those observations, what changes or improvements should we make to further those opportunities?
Three papers given over the past decade speak in part to these questions. The first is Manly Mumford’s paper just referred to in the story of Jake the Barber. In this essay he recounts much of the early history of the Internet, and of our website. He also notes some of the uses he had encountered up to that point in transmitting information over time and distance that would have been unlikely or impossible without the Internet.
Roger Ball was asked to present an address on the occasion of the Club’s 125th anniversary dinner, held at the Newberry Library, to address the future of the Club in the coming century. He said, in part: “The Chicago Literary Club stands firm in its defense of literature and the world of the imagination. During the next millennium the world will change but this club will continue to meet each Monday. A member will read a paper that has been carefully and lovingly prepared. Our interests and imagination will be stirred, and we will gather for conversation and discussion.”
The third essay was delivered at the Union League Club last year by David Maher, “Reporting to God,” which was published this past fall by the Club, and presents fascinating details of the development of the Internet and snapshots of some of the characters involved.
The masthead of our website contains the following, devised originally by Manly to describe the Club to those stumbling onto our website unawares: “The Club is a voluntary association of men and women interested in writing original essays on topics of their own choosing and in listening to other members present their essays.”
I have inflicted this collection of thoughts upon you with the goal of sparking some thought of the character of the Club as it has evolved over time. My purely personal summary would emphasize the members, first, whose desire to share their own interests and intellectual endeavors leads to the essays we enjoy each week. It is this sharing that makes our dinners and collations so interesting as well. Second, we share these essays standing before our friends and equals, without fear of disparaging remarks, and that public sharing is essential. Third, we share these in a literary format, in the English language; we do not offer exhibitions of art or concerts of music, although many of us are interested in these and other artistic ventures and may well write about them and share examples as part of the written discussion. We do not offer interactive media displays, films, or other pre-recorded formats. Our work is original, customarily written specifically for live presentation before the Club; it is not an extension of our professional interests, nor an essay written for another venue. Finally, while we certainly welcome professional authors, most of our members come from a wealth of other fields, and members are judged by their contribution to the Club and its intellectual vitality, not by their exploits in commerce or the professions or by their social standing. The variety of our members’ backgrounds adds to the ferment.
In 1973 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (“DARPA”) initiated a study of the ways in which groups of computers could be interlinked, and from this project was born the Internet. In the late 1970s Apple Computer launched the Apple II, and shortly thereafter IBM launched the personal computer. The resulting technological change has influenced much of our culture as personal computers have invaded nearly every corner of our society, worldwide, and the Internet has made it possible for most of those computers to be connected.
The Internet is a distributed network; that is, the computers of which it is composed are not located in close physical proximity to each other nor wired directly one to another. This was part of the original design as envisioned by DARPA as a defense against nuclear attack. In the event of such an attack, any single group of computers may be damaged or destroyed, but the network can survive without them and will continue to function, much like a swarm of bees defending their hive, in which any single bee is expendable, but the hive will survive. What has evolved is the distribution of the Internet over the entire world. Internet sites are part of a world-wide community and the information they contain may be accessed from any other computer. As evidence of this in our own context, the Club website, www.chilit.org, has received hundreds of thousands of visits from people scattered from every state in the Union to islands in the South Pacific and countries on every continent.
The open character of the Internet has allowed a wealth of innovation in communication, such as email, instant messaging, and voice communication; in reference material, primarily in academic and research pursuits; entertainment, such as gaming, music, and video; social networking, such as that offered by MySpace and Facebook, in which individuals can post their own personal manifestos and seek to meet others with similar interests; and in commerce, both in retail and in direct communication between corporations and their customers and employees. I do not propose to examine these in detail, both since much of this is temporal and changes frequently, and because much of this is a distraction to the pursuit of a ‘literary’ website. I do want to offer some larger generalizations about the Internet, however.
A little-noticed, but potentially substantial, consequence of the Internet is the wide distribution of previously published material. In the past, one had to have a physical copy of a book, recording, movie, or other intellectual creation in order to enjoy its fruits. You couldn’t read a book if you were not holding it. You couldn’t hear the music if you didn’t have the musician, vinyl or CD. The Internet changes all that. Once any intellectual creation, whether a mindless cartoon, a Beethoven symphony, or the works of Shakespeare, has been digitally recorded and placed online, anyone with access to the Internet can gain access to it, copy it, change or edit it, and send it back into the electronic ether. The Gutenberg Project is one example; Google has a much larger expansion in mind. A recent example in our own context is the work of David Swing, an early member of this Club. In 1881 he published privately a collection of his essays. In the late 20th century, one of our new members, Bob Keeley, came across a copy of this work, and recently made it available to the Club. I scanned it to a digital format and posted it to the Club’s website, where it can now be enjoyed not only by our members, but by anyone worldwide with an interest either in Swing or the topics he addressed.
Related to this are a few sites that act as compendiums of material published elsewhere. The best by far that I have seen to date is the Chronicle of Higher Education, which collects the best articles from publications worldwide, and makes them available on one site, with a one or two line thesis and a link to the complete article on the original site. Since there is little chance that any one reader could encompass this wealth on a daily basis, this is a substantial service. A link to this and other sites can be found on the Club website under Links at the bottom of the home page.
Another consequence of the Internet is to facilitate geographically diverse groups of individuals with similar interests. Examine our Club, for instance: we are a group of roughly 170 individuals in a city of 6 million with an interest in the art of the literary essay. You might consider us marginal in the overall cultural makeup of the city. How much more isolated would a person with such an interest be in a city the size of Peoria? How would they find others of similar bent in Oshkosh or Kalamazoo? But, with the advent of the Internet, geography is no longer an issue; ephemeral groups can gather online to discuss common interests, exchange information, ideas, and documents. Our potential membership is no longer limited to Chicago, but in one sense extends to the whole world.
This geographical ‘reduction’, if you will, has a very personal note for me as well. Some of you may recall Jim Tomes recent paper, Serendipity, on his efforts to trace his family tree, and his discovery of whole wings of Tomes’s both here and in England. While my efforts in no sense match Jim’s, I do have an interest in genealogy. Among my ancestors, I of course count Herman Lackner and my father Francis, with whom some of you may be familiar as members of this Club. I also count my grandfather, Clarence Burley, President of this Club in 1902-03 and a member for over fifty years, and his father-in-law and a Federal Judge for the Northern District of Illinois, Henry Williams Blodgett, also a member of this Club from 1882 to 1905.
Clarence Burley had a son, Clarence, who was educated at Stanford and came to love the Bay area, relocating there in the late 1940’s. Clarence also had issue, most of whom remained in the California area, but over the years contact declined due to the distance involved. Eventually, by the mid-1980’s, we had lost contact altogether. In the late 1990’s, I tried sending old-fashioned postal letters to the best address I could find for each of them, but all came back undeliverable. I tried searching the Internet, but to no avail.
Then, from out of nowhere, in the fall of this past year, I received an email. One of the western family had discovered the Literary Club website, found it interesting, and found my name among the officers. Imagine my surprise and delight in making contact with this entire wing of the family after some 25 years, entirely through the connections enabled by the Internet and our website.
There are some trends that are worth watching for the long term: one is politics, in which command of a new medium can frequently tilt an election. The 1960 Presidential race, in which John Kennedy clearly mastered the television debate to Richard Nixon’s chagrin, is an obvious example. Winston Churchill’s mastery of the radio speech, while not an election example, clearly stiffened the backbone of the English people during the London Blitz. The same may well be true in the election of 2008, in which mastery of the Internet as a medium may have a substantial effect, particularly in the Democratic primaries (this is being written in August, 2007). The use of email, blogs, video (especially YouTube), and the raising of money via PayPal and other electronic means will all speak mightily to the younger voting public, and may well tilt this election as well.
Another area of change is intellectual rights, meaning trademarks, copyright, and patent law. The Internet is a powerful means of copying and transferring files from one computer to another, as a range of industries from newspaper publishing to music to movies and television have discovered. The first reaction, following the steps in the process of grief, is denial, then fury at this ‘theft’ of material. Hopefully, the final resolution will be a redesigned means of distribution that takes advantage of the new electronic capabilities while ensuring that the artists creating the work are compensated fairly for their efforts. The corporate behemoths that have long dominated these industries yet themselves create no value may well discover that the youth of the world have passed them by unless they adapt to the new reality.
One such value may well be that of “Aggregator”, that is, serving as a guide to and promoter of valuable and creative artists and websites, much as movie studios distribute and promote movies, record labels promote recorded artists, or TV Guide suggests television programs worth viewing. Another type of Aggregator, similar to a Producer, is that entity through which artists, funding, and production facilities are brought together. These functions aggregate the specialists who make it possible to create and distribute more sophisticated works, but the manner in which this is done is in flux.
Many websites and blogs interconnect, or ‘link’ with each other in the hope of promoting their own pursuits or in sharing common interests. The Club might want to consider exchanging links to other sites that our members and visitors would find of value, such as the Caxton Club, The Fortnightly, the Cincinnati Literary Club, and others that we may come across, much in the way that social clubs such as The Union League and The Cliff Dwellers offer reciprocal memberships with clubs in other cities. I would welcome any suggestions by our members for websites to include on the Links page.
The character of the Internet is anarchic, in that anyone can create, copy, rewrite or edit, and post anything they desire. Whether that is fraudulent, defamatory, larcenous, or simply in bad taste is for the user to determine. Periodically, the system can also produce pure gems of wisdom and delight that the reader could not have found without this new medium. One such is an article by Kevin Kelly entitled “Better than Free”, on a website called Edge: The Third Culture, in which he discusses what will create value in a system in which all content is essentially free, in which all users have access to essentially all media. Some of his points to creating value are of interest in this discussion:
Embodiment, to summarize Kelly’s point, is exclusive physical presence. The Internet provides no physical presence, no social context: it is an image on a screen. Our physical presence here tonight and every Monday provides us a social context that the Internet cannot, and in doing so we provide a value to each other and to the author of the paper. The author equally provides a value to us in the hearing of the paper itself. Other examples of embodiment would include attending the opening night of a play or opera, or seats on the fifty yard line for the Superbowl.
Findability is the ability to find an article or item. The Internet provides a wealth of information, but utterly without organization. The entire value and wealth of Google, for example, rests on the ability of its users to find the information they seek. As Kelly says, “no matter what its price, a work has no value unless it is seen; unfound masterpieces are worthless.” Part of the value of our website is the ability of our members and guests to find the works of our authors, the history of the Club, and the other ancillary information we list. Any suggestions to enhance that findability are welcome.
Accessibility is essentially instant gratification. In the past, if you wished to read a Club paper after its initial presentation, you had either to go to the Newberry Library in person, or obtain a copy from the author, both cumbersome processes; the author had to find the paper and reproduce it, the Newberry had to shelve it in a manner that it could be retrieved. With our website, you merely click through to the paper or information in question, and it appears on your screen. If you wish a paper copy to read at leisure, you merely print it from the file.
So, with a nod to Jake ‘the Barber’ and with ten years greater wisdom, what can we conclude from all the puffery that surrounds the electronic frontier? First, we should recognize that the Internet is a tool of communication. Without doubt, it goes faster, farther, and with much more glitter than do paper and the spoken word, but in the end it is a vehicle for humans to communicate thoughts and images. The authors must still make their ramblings intelligible and interesting, as I hope that I have. One purpose of the Club’s presence online is to stand for clarity of thought and expression in a field littered with inarticulate drivel.
The Club website was started as a means of communicating with the members of the Club, and that is still one of its primary purposes. Thus the intention is to present on the home page a clear statement of the purpose of the Club, a means of further communication with the Club, the organizational structure, current information and access to the Club archives, all within a simple and clear navigational structure. The home page, the screen you first see when you visit the website, was early designed by Manly, and although substantially revised to accommodate growing content, has not been changed in its overall design. His vision was for a literary website; that precluded flashy graphics and many of the fancy options available in website design. The use of a simple textual structure on the home page reinforces, intentionally, that this is a site dedicated to literary pursuits.
What does the website accomplish with all the variety of material posted there? First and foremost, it is a repository of Club information for use by the members in the comfort of their home or office. Second, as a repository, it keeps that information available for their descendants and future Club members to peruse. But, third and perhaps most important, it opens our files to the world at large. Our Club has been fortunate to hold among its members a number of the most prominent and intellectually vigorous citizens of Chicago over the past century and more, and to have in its files a selection of essays on a wide range of topics. Until now, such access as was available to these files could only be had only at the Newberry Library; the website makes these files open to anyone, and fulfills in part our charter to promote literary culture.
The proportion of the member’s papers published on the site has risen substantially in the past half-decade, and in this I find a parallel to Stanley Pargellis’ efforts to collect the member’s written papers at the Newberry Library in the late 1940’s. At their introduction, each initiative was accepted, but active response took a few years. While filing papers with the Secretary for inclusion in the Newberry archives remains voluntary, most members accept it as a customary act at the conclusion of their presentation. As a result, we have written materials dating to the late 1930s, with some few from the 1920s and before. In the same manner, filing an electronic copy for publication on the website is entirely voluntary, but the substantial majority of members are now choosing to do so. Our electronic archives date to the late 1990s, with some few dating to the 1970s as current members choose to post their earlier work.
The privacy of our living members is paramount. It is for the protection of our members that we have never posted a list of current members, nor contact information, online, and that the photo directory is protected by a password. Any initial communication for individual members is forwarded to them for reply; their address is not given out by the Club. As the world moves into more and more online exposure with the likes of Facebook and MySpace, we would do well to remember the pitfalls of too much exposure, and that information once released to the Internet cannot be recalled.
I mentioned earlier that one of the virtues of our Club is that authors may present their work without fear of adverse criticism; this fosters greater development of writers and willingness to explore topics outside their own sphere of knowledge. This is decidedly not the character of the Internet, where ‘flaming’ is common among critics eager to make a name for themselves. It is for that reason that we do not offer blogs and direct outside access to our members or comments on their work.
One cannot know the interests of those who merely visit the site and read the papers or histories. One can, however, characterize the requests for further information; these are twofold. The first are relatives or other interested parties searching for information about a specific member, usually deceased; these are, unfortunately, almost universally disappointed. The second, usually successful, are searching for information on a specific topic or contact with an author whose paper has been posted.
There are also some intrepid souls who have visited our website, and, undaunted by the array of material and the lack of graphic fireworks, have enquired, without any notion of who might be behind ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’, about the process of membership. Some of those have completed the process, some have even given papers.
The Internet is changing the social fabric of our culture through social networking websites such as MySpace and Facebook, dating sites of various descriptions, and the groups that coalesce around various specific interests. Ours is, however, a highly traditional institution whose members have primarily been found by personal connection with existing members. This is a very closed system, and the Internet invites us to open our confines to new members in a more outgoing way, yet without surrendering the traditions and characteristics that make the Club the strong society that it is. The “vetting” of new members is not a simple process, and one that will likely cause some discomfort in coming years.
The social nature of our association has limited our membership to those resident in the Chicago metropolitan area, but we do have non-resident members. Are we ready to contemplate membership for those originating in a wider geographic area who might wish to present papers in an electronic manner?
The Chicago Literary Club has an intellectual tradition that stretches back many decades and is embedded in the character of Chicago. Let us not forget, however, that the men who built this Club were innovators and builders, building a new city and a new culture in the ashes of the Chicago Fire of 1871. As the cultural landscape about us changes, let us not be so bound in tradition that we miss new ways to communicate. Let us not be so mired in our own culture that we miss a new, youthful way of looking at the world.
The eureka moment of Jake the Barber opened this essay; let me quote in closing from the first published author of the Literary Club, David Swing. This essay was first published in 1878 when our Club was less than a decade old, in a book entitled Club Essays. From The Greatest of the Fine Arts: “literature is the removal of all the walls that confine. It is the sending forth of the soul into a great June day in a great world, with the attending benediction: ‘Go where you will, all truth and sentiment are before your footstep.’” 
One of the other traditions of our club is social conviviality and lively conversation at the refectory in the rear. With that in mind, let us adjourn to the collation so kindly provided by The Cliff Dwellers.
 Thomas McConnell, 1943, published privately by The Chicago Literary Club.
 Manly Mumford, “On Line”, 1998.
 Roger Ball, A Literary Club for a New Millennium, January 11, 1999
 David Swing, “Club Essays”, 1882. Published privately by David Swing.