The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.
Page  1879


THIS organization, long the center of extracurricular cultural activities in the University community, was formed in 1854, probably in emulation of the successful lecture course of the Detroit Young Men's Society during the preceding winter. In letters preserved by Samuel H. White, now in the University archives, there is some inconclusive evidence that the moving spirits among the founders were members of the Alpha Nu Literary Society. White was secretary of the Student Lecture Association in 1854-55, and president both of it and of Alpha Nu in 1855-56.

The first lecture presented was by President Tappan, who spoke early in January, 1855, on "The Spirit of Literature." The first season was not markedly successful, despite the popularity of the main attraction, Bayard Taylor; in 1855-56, however, nine lecturers were secured, among them Taylor, Horace Mann, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. This was the first of a long series of courses averaging about ten numbers each, with a large proportion of nationally known speakers, some of whom returned as many as a half dozen times. Before 1885 the Student Lecture Association had brought to Ann Arbor, besides a host of less remembered celebrities, Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips, Horace Greeley, Carl Schurz, Artemus Ward, John B. Gough, P. T. Barnum, L. J. R. Agassiz, Anna Dickinson, Theodore Tilton, Charles Sumner, Mark Twain, Edwin L. Godkin, Bret Harte, and Matthew Arnold. Beginning with 1868-69, moreover, the Student Lecture Association usually offered one or more musical numbers, and in October, 1876, it presented, at an expense of $1,000, a celebrated symphony orchestra directed by Theodore Thomas. This and many other offerings of the Association are landmarks in the cultural history of the University.

The most vigorous period of the Student Lecture Association was that before the Civil War, when lecturing was less a business than a means of satisfying a widespread anxiety for self-improvement. The enduring strength of the organization is demonstrated, however, by the way in which it weathered the rivalry of the Students' Liberal Lecture Association, founded in 1867 as a protest against a course overburdened with partisan political addresses by Greeley, Tilton, and Phillips, and by its survival in the face of downtown competition from Hill's Opera House (later the Whitney Theater), which was offering lectures as well as plays in the 1870's and 1880's.

The constantly rising cost (the average expense per number grew from $48.12 in 1862-63 to $324.63 in 1881-82) made it increasingly difficult for the officers of the Association to obtain a well-rounded course. After 1875 they came to depend more and more upon musical numbers, and the courses reflect a country-wide decline in lecturing proper. With the formation of the University Musical Society (see Part VI: The University Musical Society) a part of the function which the Student Lecture Association had served passed into other hands. From 1885 on, however, it was becoming less and less important to the life of the campus, in part because of the intellectual self-sufficiency which developed with the University, in part, perhaps, because of the development of a more varied extracurricular life.

By far the largest number of lectures presented by the Student Lecture Association may be classified as lay sermons, on ethical or moral subjects. The most representative use of this type of lecture Page  1880was that by Emerson, who in 1856 expressed his willingness to speak for $25, if the Association was "easily able" to manage that much. For him, as for a number of others, lecturing was a duty, not a livelihood. Less earnest lecturers spoke on literature, on travel, on history, on politics and foreign affairs; some were frankly and bravely humorists, and a few took science for their theme. Year by year, the programs reflected the intellectual fashions and preoccupations of the nation at large, as well as gradual changes in its taste. Abolition, reconstruction, women's rights, civil service, the Coast Survey, the Atlantic cable, Arctic exploration, Darwinism, Shakespearean actors, Arnold's notions on literature and science, western humor, and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan — all found a place on the capacious platforms of the Methodist Church or University Hall.

In its days of prosperity, the Student Lecture Association served more than one useful purpose. For a number of years, beginning about 1868, it provided sums of money to stock the library with current newspapers and magazines. In 1876 the officers were able to spend $1,450 for a grand piano for the stage of University Hall. In 1880 the Association was helping with the gymnasium fund.

Yet its greatest service, perhaps, was one which did not depend on showing a profit: the introduction of callow youth to a world of gaslights and opera glasses, of oratory and classical music and brief but magnificent glimpses of vistas more sophisticated even than the great circle of University Hall. Thus, one member of the class of '70 writes of an evening when Olive Logan lectured "on the foibles of her sex and in the midst of her talk gave an ocular demonstration. Throwing back her bustle to its fullest she pranced across the pulpit in the 'Grecian bend.' It 'brought down the house,' and almost threatened the Association with censorship." And one member of the class of '80 tells of playing a concert waltz by Chopin on the same program with Eduard Remenyi, the famous violinist: "A further incident of the evening not forgotten is how, coming to the rear of the stage after a performance, Remenyi was veiled down his front with horse-hair shed from his violin bow." Many another alumnus has treasured such memories of Ann Arbor, and it is safe to say that for many generations of Michigan men and women the Student Lecture Association was an integral part of education, in the larger sense of the word.

The Association came to an end in 1912, its function of providing lecturers being taken over by the Oratorical Association, reorganized in recent years as the University Lecture Course, and long managed by Professor Carl G. Brandt.