in other colleges of the time, the literary societies provided
a chief extracurricular outlet for student energies. The first was
the Platonean Literary Society, formed in June 1838 under the direction
of Professor Cyrus Nutt. Two years later, on President Simpson's
advice, it split into two groups, the second taking the name first
of the Ciceronian, and finally, the Philological Literary Society.
Plato and Philo, as they were generally known, persisted throughout
the Asbury period, each with a membership of from 50 to 100 students.
After women entered the university in 1867, they formed their own
literary society called the Philomathean, and the preparatory department
at times had its own, less well developed, society. Most students
were to join one or the other of the societies, which were highly
competitive but not as exclusive as social fraternities became in
later years. Faculty members and selected Greencastle professional
men were also connected with the societies, which vied with each
other in inviting prominent Americans such as Longfellow, Bryant,
Holmes, Agassiz, and Beecher to accept honorary membership.
The literary societies met on Friday evenings in college rooms set
aside for them by the university, where their members elected their
own officers, conducted business according to parliamentary rules,
and debated the issues of
the day. Plato and Philo Halls were especially elaborately furnished,
with thick carpets, window drapes, and comfortable sofas and chairs.
Each had a collection of books which served as a circulating library
for its members, who were unable at that time to borrow volumes
from the university library. The literary societies obviously served
as student retreats where members could relax from the rigid and
often sterile atmosphere of the recitation hall, where they were
forced to engage in rote, lockstep learning under the stern control
of a professor. Here students found an opportunity to organize themselves
democratically and thrash out ideas and topics. of their own choosing.
Perhaps one could say about them what has been said about the playing
fields of Eton: that the battles of Shiloh and Antietam were won
on the Victorian settees of American college literary societies!