The Irving Literary Society (Cornell University)

The Irving Literary Society (Cornell University)

Ask a question about 'The Irving Literary Society (Cornell University)'
Start a new discussion about 'The Irving Literary Society (Cornell University)'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
Cornell literary societies were a group of 19th century student organizations at Cornell University
Cornell University
Cornell University is an Ivy League university located in Ithaca, New York, United States. It is a private land-grant university, receiving annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions...

, in Ithaca, New York, formed for the purpose of promoting language skills and oratory. The U.S. Bureau of Education described three of them as a "purely literary society
Literary society
A literary society is a group of people interested in literature. In the modern sense, this refers to a society that wants to promote one genre of literature or a specific writer. Modern literary societies typically promote research about their chosen author or genre, publish newsletters, and hold...

" following the "traditions of the old literary societies of Eastern universities." At their peak, the literary societies met in a room called "Society Hall', located within North University (now White Hall).

Cornell’s Literary Societies, 1868–1888

In 1877, the four literary societies were ranked according to seniority in the Cornell Register: Irving (founded in 1868), Philaletheian (also founded in 1868), Adelphi (founded in 1870) and Curtis (founded in 1872). Competition was an early trait of literary society life at Cornell. Beginning in February 1870, the Irving and the Philaletheian held their annual contest against one another. That event has been noted as one reason the quality of debate was so high between 1869 and 1884.

Other associations formed after the Irving. The Young Men’s Catholic Literary Association held a meeting in November 1869 at Deming Hall on Ithaca’s State Street. The subject of debate was, “Resolved, That the French Revolution exerted a beneficial effect on the civilization of Europe.” Besides the Philalatheian and Irving, other smaller societies met to provide opportunities for those not competitive within the two larger societies, whether for lack of opportunity or fear of the Irving and Philalatheian’s larger audiences. The Irving and Philalatheian were accordingly regarded the foremost of Cornell undergraduate institutions, the smaller societies were the training league for the elevated two. In 1870, the second year of the University's operation, the Johnsonian and the Adelphi societies were founded, although the Johnsonian only lasted until 1872. Even more short-lived were the The Grove, Lowell and Philolexian societies which were founded in 1871, and ceased operations shortly thereafter. Lowell used its membership fees to support a reading room in the old Cornell Public Library in downtown Ithaca for the use of patrons. As the Cornell Era opined midway through the University’s second year,
We are glad to note the organization of two or three small literary societies among the students, one of which holds its meetings in one of the University lecture rooms. These do in a humbler way, although perhaps as effectually, the work of the large societies and interest those who are not confident enough to appear before large audiences.

The three societies – the Irving, Curtis and Philalatheian — combined efforts to produce their own publication, the Cornell Review, in December 1873. The Review was the repository of original articles, essays, stories, Woodford orations, elaborate discussions, and poems. It was published first by representatives of the literary societies. After 1880 an "editor from the Debating club” replaced the candidate from the defunct Philalatheian. The Curtis died out a few years later. The Curtis’ possessions were routed over to the American History Section Room, provided to Professor Tyler. After 1883, the Cornell Review drew its editors from the Irving, the Debating club, and three appointed by the retiring Review board from each of the upperclasses: Sophomore, Junior and Senior. Issued first as a quarterly in 1873, it became a monthly in academic year 1874–1875. And throughout the 1880s, the surviving literary societies competed against new student interests, such as the Cornell Congress and the emerging Cornell Athletics. Literary exercises were also conducted within social fraternities, which undercut the need for separate societies that drew members from multiple fraternities or independents.

Society Hall

The creation of a "Society Hall" was proposed by Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White was a U.S. diplomat, historian, and educator, who was the co-founder of Cornell University.-Family and personal life:...

 with a $1,000 gift in January to be matched by $300 from the members of all the societies that would use the facilities. As for the site, Room M, North University (later called White 10) was chosen. During the spring of 1870, Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White
Andrew Dickson White was a U.S. diplomat, historian, and educator, who was the co-founder of Cornell University.-Family and personal life:...

 allocated a large room inside the center door of what is now called Andrew Dickson White Hall, for the use of the literary societies. The room is now called the Dean's Seminar Room. At the time, White Hall was called "North University" and housed the engineering Department as well as the offices of Professor Goldwin Smith
Goldwin Smith
Goldwin Smith was a British-Canadian historian and journalist.- Early years :He was born at Reading, Berkshire. He was educated at Eton College and Magdalen College, Oxford, and after a brilliant undergraduate career he was elected to a fellowship at University College, Oxford...

. Society Hall became one the standard stops on the Cornell campus tour, and was described in The Cornell Era of June 29, 1870:
This is a large and beautifully furnished room used for meetings of the two chief literary societies and the Students’ Christian Association. It is carpeted, and its walls are partly wainscoted in two woods, partly tinted. On them, supported by bronze brackets, are placed nine full-length bronze statuettes executed in Paris and representing the following historic characters: Washington
George Washington
George Washington was the dominant military and political leader of the new United States of America from 1775 to 1799. He led the American victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783, and presided over the writing of...

, Franklin
Benjamin Franklin
Dr. Benjamin Franklin was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat...

, Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

, Newton
Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton PRS was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been "considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived."...

, Moliere
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière, was a French playwright and actor who is considered to be one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature...

, Goethe, Cervantes
-People:*Alfonso J. Cervantes , mayor of St. Louis, Missouri*Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, 16th-century man of letters*Ignacio Cervantes, Cuban composer*Jorge Cervantes, a world-renowned expert on indoor, outdoor, and greenhouse cannabis cultivation...

, Dante
Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that plans, builds and operates the international networks that interconnect the various national research and education networks in Europe and surrounding regions...

 and Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni , commonly known as Michelangelo, was an Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet, and engineer who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art...

. Interspersed between these are twenty large engravings, many of them proof impressions, depicting important scenes in the history of America and other countries. A half hour may well be devoted to their examination, since some of the imported ones are exceedingly rare in this country. Nor should the handsome desk on the president’s rostrum be neglected, noteworthy as it is for the elegance of its design and the thoroughness of its execution. All the fittings of this hall are of the most substantial kind.”

The "Society Hall" room marked the first recognition that University-supplied space should be devoted to student activities and organizations. This further evolved with the parlor rooms in the Sage College for women in 1872, with the construction of Barnes Hall
Barnes Hall
Barnes Hall is a student-services building located in the center of the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York. It was built in 1887 in a Romanesque style and has 21,618 sq ft.-History:...

 to house the Students’ Christian Association in 1888 and finally with the construction of Willard Straight Hall
Willard Straight Hall
Willard Straight Hall is the student union building on the central campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. It is located on Campus Road, adjacent to the Ho Plaza and the Gannett Health Center.-History:...

 as the student union in 1925.


By the 1890s, many literary societies across the United States were declining, with the serious survivors turning into debating clubs. Cornell's transition from literary to amusing extracurricular activities occurred in the 1880s, and was controversial. When the literary societies proposed, through the Cornell Era, the substitution of charades or mock trials for traditional literary activities, more conservative editors at the University of Virginia balked. The literary societies were starting to entertain activities of a less intellectual and more social nature. The transition from purely literary to amusing activities was noted by President Andrew Dickson White. His professional opinion was that the decline of Cornell’s undergraduate literary societies followed from the growth of Cornell's Greek System, the decline of oratory as a valued skill in late 19th century America, and Charles Kendall Adams' reforms which brought the "seminary"or seminar system to the University.

The last of the original Cornell literary societies, The Irving, ceased public operations by 1888. According to the Cornell Magazine, The Irving held its last meeting at Society Hall on May 27, 1887. The Cornell Debate Association performs a similar function to the literary societies at present.

The initial decline of the literary socieities was followed by a period of inactivity for about five or six years after which there was a revived interest in student debates. The revival would not place the literary societies back in their position at the forefront of Cornell institutions, but it did provide a more or less lasting place for oral debate on the Hill. The source of the 1890s revival of intercollegiate competitions has been generally attributed to Western colleges and their challenges to the Eastern elite institutions. At Cornell, this challenge occurred as the University was establishing a professorship in elocution. Competitions followed.

In 1900, the United States Bureau of Education cited the experience of the Irving, Philalatheian, and Curtis as evidence that the East Coast's traditional, literary culture did not taking root at the new Cornell University in the same manner in which it flourished at Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania and other "seaboard" schools. The Land Grant college undergraduate culture was increasingly, organized athletics. But during their preeminence, the Irving and its peers produced literature at a rate higher than the campus average for the next generation, leading commentators at the turn of the 20th century to question whether academic standards had fallen since Cornell University’s founding. The 1900 report observed that all of the Cornell literary societies had "disappeared."

Irving Literary Society

Cornell's first literary society was the Irving Literary Association (later the Irving Literary Society), which held its first business meeting in Room No. 4, Cascadilla Place, on October 20, 1868, some thirteen days after Cornell University
Cornell University
Cornell University is an Ivy League university located in Ithaca, New York, United States. It is a private land-grant university, receiving annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions...

 opened its doors. It was named after the New York born writer and historian Washington Irving
Washington Irving
Washington Irving was an American author, essayist, biographer and historian of the early 19th century. He was best known for his short stories "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle", both of which appear in his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. His historical works...

. In 1884, three years before its final demise, the Ithaca Daily Democrat lamented its 'decline' under mechanical and engineering students pursuing 'technical' interests in the mid-1880s.

The Philaletheian Society

The Philaletheian was founded on November 1, 1868 with Dudley W. Rhodes as its first president. Rhodes went on to become the valedictorian
Valedictorian is an academic title conferred upon the student who delivers the closing or farewell statement at a graduation ceremony. Usually, the valedictorian is the highest ranked student among those graduating from an educational institution...

 of Cornell's first graduating class. Unlike the Irving and Curtis societies, the Philaletheian limited its membership to men. On December 18, 1868, it conducted Cornell's first public exhibition at the Aurora Street Methodist Episcopal Church, where they debated, "Resolved, that a two-thirds majority of the Supreme Court should be necessary to annul an Act of Congress."

In the autumn of 1878, the Philaletheian changed its name (derived from the Greek word meaning "lover of truth") to The Cornell Debating Club after its members decided that as its activities were exclusively concentrated on debate, a classical name was no longer appropriate. The society ceased to exist in 1885.

The Samuel Johnson, or "Johnsonian", Society

Named in honor of Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson , often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

, it was founded in 1870 and lasted until 1872.

The Adelphi or Adelphia Society

Adelphi was a secret literary society founded on January 16, 1870 and noted for bringing George Francis Train
George Francis Train
George Francis Train was an entrepreneurial businessman who organized the clipper ship line that sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco; he organized the Union Pacific Railroad and the Credit Mobilier in the United States, and a horse tramway company in England while there during the American...

 to Ithaca, New York, for a presentation. It was active from 1870–1877 with members that included the banker Joseph C. Hendrix
Joseph C. Hendrix
Joseph Clifford Hendrix was a U.S. Representative from New York.Born in Fayette, Missouri, Hendrix attended private schools and Central College at Fayette and Cornell University, Ithaca, New York from 1870 to 1873....

 and historian Emilius O. Randall.

The James Russell Lowell, or "Lowell" Society

Founded in 1871, and named in honor of James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell was an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. He is associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets...


The George William Curtis, or "Curtis" Society

The Curtis Literary Society, named for the transcendentalist
Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the New England region of the United States as a protest against the general state of culture and society, and in particular, the state of intellectualism at Harvard University and the doctrine of the Unitarian...

 writer and orator George William Curtis
George William Curtis
George William Curtis was an American writer and public speaker, born in Providence, Rhode Island, of old New England stock.-Biography:...

, was founded on October 10, 1872. The Curtis was the first of the Cornell literary societies to admit women. The Curtis census during the Fall of 1880 was about the same as the Cornell Club, the new debate forum. Each mustered about fifteen students. An example of Curtis’ debate would be the November 1880 exercise putting the question, "Resolved, that suffrage be extended to women." ?" The next month, Hidesabro Saze lectured on “Japan.” The following term the Curtis provided new formats, such as the presentation of papers on a common topic like “The Contrast between Germany and Italy”. When conducting these exercises, the members would also perform music from the cultures featured. The members also conducted mock trials. It died out in October 1881. Among its members was the jurist Wilmot Moses Smith
Wilmot Moses Smith
Wilmot Moses Smith was an American jurist and songwriter. He was on the New York Supreme Court, but is perhaps more famous for co-writing "Far Above Cayuga's Waters", Cornell University's alma mater....

 who co-wrote the lyrics to Far Above Cayuga's Waters
Far Above Cayuga's Waters
"Far Above Cayuga's Waters" is Cornell University's alma mater. The lyrics were composed circa 1870 by roommates Archibald Croswell Weeks, 1872, and Wilmot Moses Smith, 1874, and set to the tune of "Annie Lisle", a popular 1857 ballad by H. S. Thompson about a heroine dying of...

, Cornell's alma mater
Alma Mater (song)
The alma mater is the generic title given to the official song or anthem of a school, college, or university.The official song may be referred to as the alma mater of the school, college or university, and it may be understood by those who know, which song is referred to.A frequently used tune for...

. On December 7, 1893 the name (but not the society itself) was resurrected when a group of undergraduates formed the Curtis Debating Club with separate organizations for sophomores, juniors and seniors, and a combined membership of 75 men. Eventually, an overall Cornell Union was established to coordinate all of the debating clubs.