THE ROTARY FOUNDATION
THE FELLOWSHIP OF ROTARY HISTORIANS since 11 october 2000
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"Who, What, When,
Where, Why, and How" of Rotary since 11 October 2000
"Nice to be reminded of the things of historical value, and I learn
something new to talk about with potential new members."
The hedonistic 1920's is
best remembered perhaps with an image of the flapper and was famously named by F
Scott Fitzgerald as the 'Jazz Age'. It was also the age of 'Babbitt' - the
epitome of the American middle-class or 'Booboisie' as Mencken called it.
Babbitt was Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis’s famous masterpiece on the
materialistic, conventional yet confused Rotarian camouflaged by the author in
his Booster Club of Zenith City. What did the Boosters do? – They capitalized
culture. Sinclair Lewis belonged to a group of radical, literary intellectuals
that distrusted such new institutions yet had nothing but contempt for the past.
To such critics, Rotarians had no notion whatsoever of culture. To such critics,
Rotarians had no notion
whatsoever of culture. Other critics included the famous Chicago trial lawyer
Clarence Darrow, (right) the acid-tongued society critic Dorothy Parker
(above) and the sophisticate editor of “Americana” Gilbert
Seldes described Rotary as: “These boy
scouts of business do a dirty trick a day if they can get away with it, but it
is a small trick…in the aggregate they provide an army of contented cows”.
The typical Rotarian of this age seemed fair game for these
caricatures. Rotarians, according to arch-critic H L Mencken (in his review of
‘Middletown’ The American Mercury, March 1929) were “well-fed, well-dressed,
complacent and cocksure, he remains almost destitute of ideas”. Rotarians,
paradoxically, came from the same backgrounds as their critics.
did not appreciate being at the receiving end of sometimes nasty scorn. Some
clubs such as the Rotary Club of Muncie, Indiana had an evening devoted to
discussion of the Babbitt stereotype. It can be presumed that most Rotarians did
not understand the criticism of their embryonic movement. They could contrast
this vicious criticism with the grateful thanks from the organizations which
Rotary Clubs were actively benefiting. The Great War had seen Government
positively encourage such local volunteerism. War, however, also led to much
disillusionment and the complacent club member was an easy target for its
Arthur Hobbes’s article in The Rotarian of November 1925 quotes
Clarence Darrow’s attack on the movement: “They know life is worthwhile, and the
reason they know it is because they can get money. You will find optimists in
the Rotary Club…you will find them boasting and lying and stealing.”
Rotary responded to the critics - many realised that certain club behaviour was
"fair game". An example would be found in 'The Handbook of Entertainment for
Rotary Clubs' published in 1919. Some of its suggestions included dressing
initiates in diapers and having a member pretend to be a "woman speaker from
Washington". The Rotary Club of London on its 25th anniversary readily admitted
to having had "the Self-before-Service period". In this early period, London
Rotarians were handed a small account book in which to record all transactions
with other members. The Booster Club transcended national borders.
least Sinclair Lewis had the courage to address his victims. Speaking at the
Rotary Club of Kansas City, members enjoyed his mimicry of the different types
of Luncheon speaker, from the rambling journalist to the "he-man talking the
he-language". Lewis then went on to annoy the Club members by lambasting into an
attack against the Booster anti-culture. Lewis would mellow over the years in
his attitude to Rotary. During his visit to Britain in 1928, Lewis admitted in
an interview: "but I assert the growth of Rotary in Great Britain is more
important for world tranquillity than all the campaigns of the reformers put
together". After all, even the archetypal Babbitt had his good points - clearly
Lewis loved his character.
Sinclair Lewis was certainly less critical of
Rotary than Mencken; his contempt for the movement was complete: "The first
Rotarian called John the Baptist, 'Jack'".
The Rotary movement became
self-conscious of their image and inevitably got fed up with the ridicule as the
early boyishness diluted over time. The 'Babbitt' Club member would and could be
identified in their Clubs according to The Rotarian in February 1927. He was, in
fact, the exception and not the rule.
New Direction in
A new direction of Social Welfare Policy for the
new post war Britain was first announced at a meeting of the Rotary Club of
London in 1940. The Beveridge Report was first welcomed by Government Minister
Ernest Bevin to enthusiastic Rotarians and signaled that Rotary was now a
recognized community force to those in power.