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Fountain of Literature

By France Griggs Sloat

The mission of the Mermaid Tavern, according to student activities material, is “to provide an open and relaxed environment for writers to shape their work and seek guidance.”

It’s a worthy mission for the University’s oldest club. But that was not always the case. Take, for instance, the gritty days of the 1960s when the club operated in an atmosphere of male camaraderie and its members’ writings were brutally but honestly critiqued—over beers, of course.

Founded in the 1930s as a writer’s club in the image of Shakespeare’s famous Mermaid Tavern, the club became a sort of male fraternity that indulged in drinking, smoking and hazing. Every Monday night the members gathered in the Ratterman House basement, decked out as an Elizabethan tavern with long benches and a dark wooden bar. The meetings always carried on elsewhere into the night.

“There was a mystique about being a member of Mermaid Tavern because it was invitational and there was a hazing that was designed to build an esprit de corps,” says Richard Hague, a 1969 graduate. He returned many times after graduation to help carry on the traditions, one of which required new members to recite Keats’ “Lines on the Mermaid Tavern” at the faculty dining table. Hague, today a high school English teacher, can still rattle them off: “Souls of poets dead and gone, What Elysium have ye known, Happy field or mossy cavern, Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?”

The critiques toughened him as a writer and taught him the creative and critical sides of the writing process. But today, the club has mellowed. Women joined in 1970, the hazing disappeared and the emphasis is on sharing work and techniques, not pointed critiques, says English professor Norm Finkelstein. Gone are the links to Elizabethan times, but students’ work still appears in the Athenaeum magazine. And the souls of poets dead and gone still carry on.

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