Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sinclair Lewis and the Esperanto Congress

Sinclair Lewis
Despite the small size of the 1910 Universala Kongreso, many American civic leaders were certain that it would be beneficial to their city to host a future one. And so, on August 20, 1910, there were several newspaper reports that appeals had been made to the attendees of the conference to consider another American city for a future UK.

Despite the small size of the Congreso, the leaders of the Esperanto movement were open to the idea of returning to the United States in 1915, although they noted that decision would not be made until 1913. That didn’t stop New Orleans and San Francisco from sending representatives to deliver addresses to the 1910 UK.

The representative of New Orleans was Grosvenor Dawe, the director of the Southern Commercial Congress, a figure too obscure to get his name in the title of this piece (sorry, Mr. Dawe). A variety of newspapers[1] reported that Dawe had an address prepared in Esperanto to be distributed to the delegates, although it was his intention to deliver his remarks in English. Mr. Dawe had founded the Southern Commercial Congress in 1908; by all appearances he was a reasonably prominent figure in 1910.

In contrast, the person representing San Francisco was far less prominent. San Francisco sent a one-time resident of the city, though not a native, now residing in Washington, D.C. Their representative’s claim to fame was that he had published some short stories. A red-headed budding writer of twenty-five years, Sinclair Lewis.

Both cities were also vying for the 1915 world’s fair, already determined to be called the Panama Exposition. In the end, San Francisco got both the world’s fair (a great success) and the Universala Kongreso (which was the smallest ever, in part because it happened during World War I).
The San Francisco Call reported:
Esperanto for City
[Special Dispatch to The Call]
Washington. Aug. 19—Sinclair Lewis, formerly of San Francisco, addressed the Esperanto congress today on the advantages of San Francisco for the Panama exposition of 1915. His address was full of information regarding the orient and he pointed out how the orient would be represented at San Francisco at the exposition and how the Esperantists could push their propaganda at that time. His address was translated into Esperanto and will be distributed in that language to organizations abroad.
Note the the Call doesn’t even mention Mr. Dawe. Fair enough, because more papers actually reported on Mr. Dawe’s speech and made no reference to Mr. Lewis. Not that San Francisco knew they were sending a future Nobel laureate. Amerika Esperantisto gave both speakers about the same amount of space and reported that “many cities are already competing for the Esperanto congresses, and that this is a sign of our prosperity.”

The Washington Times made clear that in some way the support of the Esperanto movement was sought to get the bigger prize:
New Orleans and San Francisco Ask for Help in Panama Exposition
Before mean and women representing thirty-five States of North America and twenty-three nations, the claims of New Orleans and San Francisco for the great Panama Exposition, to be held in 1915, were set forth this morning at the closing session of the sixth International Esperanto Congress.

Incidentally, a cordial invitation was extended by New Orleans that the Esperantists hold their international congress for the year 1915 in New Orleans during the Panama Exposition. Likewise, San Francisco extended to the linguists the same invitation for the same year and the same occasion.

Sinclair Lewis, representing that metropolis of the West declared that San Francisco and California need Esperanto, and that Esperanto needs the West.

Following Mr. Lewis’ speech of invitation to the Esperantists in behalf of the city of San Francisco, G. Grosvenor Dawe, secretary of the Southern Commercial Congress, extended a similar invitation for the city of New Orleans.

No Action Taken
The invitations extended by both cities were received with enthusiasm by the foreign delegates, but no action was taken by the congress with regard to the great international gathering for 1915.
The Washington Herald reported this as a triumph for Sinclair Lewis, noting that he “put one over on his rival,” and “got the first chance to explain why the Esperantists should hold their 1915 powwow in the Golden Gate City.” That article concludes:
Meanwhile, the harassed chiefs of the Esperantists say that they are not going to decide where the 1915 meeting will be held for about two years. But Congress isn’t in session, and the exposition press agents have to fill out their reports to the chiefs.
Lewis did mention Esperanto in at least one of his works, though it doesn’t seem entirely positive. In Arrowsmith (1925), Lewis wrote:
The Onward March Magazine, which specialized in biographies of Men Who Have Made Good, had an account of Pickerbaugh among its sketches of the pastor who built his own, beautiful Neo–Gothic church out of tin cans, the lady who had in seven years kept 2,698 factory-girls from leading lives of shame, and the Oregon cobbler who had taught himself to read Sanskrit, Finnish, and Esperanto.
Though it could be worse.

While everyone else was talking about Grosvenor Dawe and Sinclair Lewis, the Richmond, Virginia Times Dispatch was talking about their own convention head, William T. Dabney, who they reported was studying Esperanto with the hope of drawing a future Universala Kongreso to Richmond, Virginia[2] The article includes a bit of gibberish[3] purporting to be Esperanto:
Richmonda conventionia citini bestovich en countriski
The Times Dispatch viewed it as a “cinch” that Richmond would host a future Esperanto congress, though their sub-headline couldn’t have possibly have helped their case. Under the (not wholly credible) headline of “Dabney is Speaking Esperanto” (not if the only sample in the article is an indication) is written:
Convention-Getter Learning A B C’s in New Language to Land Freak Talkers.
Someone at the Times Dispatch clearly didn’t think much of Esperanto.

  1. Reported in the Bismark Daily Tribune, Los Angeles Herald, New-York Tribune, (Ogden City, Utah) Evening Standard, Washington Herald, Washington Times, and doubtless many other publications.  ↩
  2. Such an event has never happened.  ↩
  3. An Esperantist might call it “volapukaĵo,” (stuff uttered in Volapük), or nonsense.  ↩

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