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The "Scriblerians," an all-male club flourishing in the early eighteenth century, remains among the most thoroughly literary groups to be found in modern history. However, the club's origin, development, and demise, as well as the colorful personalities of its original six members, and the sense in which it can be considered a "club," is so complex that any monolithic explanation of its formation based on homosocial affinity is inadequate.

Male social clubs and literary societies were commonplace in the eighteenth century, but the Scriblerians, in addition to unprecedented literary brilliance, were distinguished by the individual members' homosocial needs, which formed a conscious raison d'être for coming together in the first place.

From the start, the group intended to be more than a gathering place for "like-minded wits," and hoped to create a symbolic space where politico-literary collaboration could combine with heightened friendship amounting to less than romantic attachment. Virginia Woolf captures an essential aspect of its fiber in Orlando in the episode where Pope and Addison take tea.

The Original Membership of the Club

The original six members were John Arbuthnot, Queen Anne's Scottish physician and a scientist of some distinction; John Gay, the poet and playwright of the Beggar's Opera (1728); Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford and a man who felt comfortable when surrounded by "the wits"; Thomas Parnell, the Irish poet; Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of his generation; and Jonathan Swift, the churchman-writer and brilliant author of Gulliver's Travels (1726).

All were bachelors except Oxford and Parnell, and Parnell's marriage was troubled by his chronic depression and less than heterosexual temperament.

The original club was the result of an amalgam of two groups: one led by Swift, the other by Pope. Swift's group was a generation older than Pope's and four of the men--Swift, Harley, Arbuthnot, Parnell--were old enough to have been the fathers of Pope and Gay. The older members were Tory in their politics and brought prestige, authority, and experience; the younger, wit, youth, and ambition.

Nevertheless, the deep underpinnings of the group--old and young--were intrinsic to its existence.

The Club's Reason for Being

The club's raison d'être was as psychosexual as politico-literary, in Swift's words in a letter dated September 20, 1723, to Pope: "I have often endeavored to establish a friendship among all men of genius, and would fain have done it. They are seldom above three or four contemporaries, and, if they could be united, would drive the world before them."

It may be true that genius steers the world's ship, but Swift's vision of "friendship" brimmed over with romantic and sexual overtones. Furthermore, Swift was at this time isolated and deeply alienated, and the all-male friendship he idealizes is driven as vigorously by psychosexual urges as by any magnanimous desire to unite genius.

Swift's isolation was caused, in part, by his rift with two rival Whigs, the essayists Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, as homosocial in their own liaisons as the proto-Scriblerians were; so much so that years later Pope told Joseph Spence, a memoirist who copied down whatever Pope dictated, that Addison and Steele "had been a couple of h---s," that is, .

It is impossible to know precisely what Pope meant and whether his remark has any veracity, the point being rather the homosocial rivalry that fed into the stream that had created the Scriblerians in the first place.

The Growth of the Club

The first group of six called itself "the Saturday club" but soon gave way to a larger fellowship of about twenty men who grasped on to "the Brothers Club," intending to rival the famous Whig Kit-Cat club, a group often loud and vulgar when convened. Swift's vision was of a few men, bound together by their "love" for each other, as well as their learning, wit, and genius.

Into this group, Swift drew Dr. Arbuthnot, Matthew Prior--a bachelor whose politics were deeply conservative and who may have been homosexual in our modern sense--and Dr. Friend, a scholar at Christ Church in Oxford. But Swift also had a literary protégé in Thomas Parnell, like himself an Irishman of English descent who was also a member of the Church of Ireland and who was young enough to be his son.

The group met almost weekly in 1711-1712, but it was not until the young Pope--then nearing twenty-five--approached Swift in October 1713 that the idea of a "Scriblerian club" became reality. Pope's plan was that the "scribbling friends" would collaborate on a burlesque monthly periodical poised to satirize hack writing and pretentious erudition, but it is also plain that a complex web of emotional needs of older and younger men influenced their decisions.

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The eighteenth century Scriblerians, an all-male social club, was formed by the amalgamation of two groups, one led by Jonathan Swift (top) and a younger group led by Alexander Pope (above).
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