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“New York Literary Tea”

Text & Photo: Julie Schwietert Collazo

I swear, I’m not intentionally reading 1930s-eras essays about the literary life in New York in order to glorify some era I didn’t experience, but between Fitzgerald’s earnings and this Jerry Felsheim entry, “New York Literary Tea,” part of the never-fully-realized America Eats project (and included in Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land), it’s hard not to feel that Depression-era New York was where it was at for writers.

Though Felsheim actually makes fun of the “institution” of literary tea in the piece (at which, by the way, no tea was served), what he isn’t making fun of–and what is lacking in the publishing world today, in many respects–is the impulse for industry members to get together and talk shop, even when it’s gossipy shop. These days, the higher up you are on the publishing ladder, the less you want to socialize in the manner of the literary tea… at least as Felsheim describes it:

Literary "tea"

Literary “tea”

“… Since the publishing world is concentrated in New York, literary teas reach their apex in that city. Their sponsors are usually connected with the business, a publisher trying to put over a new author; an editor celebrating the start of a magazine; or again, just a head hunter parading another celebrity. In Manhattan, literary teas are given upon the slightest provocation….

“…Literary teas are constantly in a state of flux. The uninitiated gravitates toward the author, the author toward the editor or publisher, the publisher toward the reviewer, and the reviewer, in desperation, toward another drink. Since the general rule of conduct is to seek out those who can do one the most good, magazine editors and big-name reviewers enjoy much popularity….

“… Ephemeral as all this may be, however, the modern literary tea has its points. It enables its devotees to renew old friendships and make new ones; it gives the publisher an opportunity to tip off the trade as to which writer he is going to push; it allows the ambitious young author to make contacts with editors; and it gives a great many people entertainment, not to mention free drinks, in the hours before dinner.”


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