Archives of the Philolexian Society: General Project Description and Selection Policy

This project endeavors to present and describe documents and images relating to the Philolexian Society, a literary debate society which is Columbia University’s oldest student group and one of the oldest university literary organizations in the United States.

Founded in 1802 by associates of Alexander Hamilton—his son James, Columbia College class of 1805 was one of the founding members—the Society has evolved against the dynamic backdrops of Columbia University and New York City. Admittedly, the Society has experienced periods of obsolescence, but over the past two decades, it has experienced a resurgence, spearheaded by its decision to admit women and the establishment of the Society’s flagship event, the Alfred Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest. (Kilmer, CC 1908, is best known for his satirical poem, “Trees,” which begins: “I think I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree.”) In turn, there has also been revived interest among Philolexian alumni in generating funds to acquire official and permanent halls on the Columbia campus.

Given these and other recent trends signaling that the Philolexian Society has entered into a new period of self-fashioning and expansion, this parameters of this project will survey records from the mid-1850s to 1910, and then from 1985 to the present. While certain groups of records from the Society’s archives contain many duplicates, and other areas of Philo enterprises are not as well documented, selection will be judicious and will have as its primary objective the representation of the Society’s origins, its relationships with other literary societies and with Columbia University, the meanings of some of its rituals, its activities, as well as background descriptions of some of its favorite alumni.

I will choose materials based on access, success in securing copyright to the records, and also upon whether these records can be made to effectively illustrate the evolution of the Society, its goals, its activities, and the contributions of its alumni to Columbia University, New York, and in even more universal domains. The records will be drawn from the Philolexian Society’s records housed in the University Archives-Columbiana Library at Columbia University, and from records currently in possession of the Society. It will include board meetings, minutes of the weekly debates, records of debates from the University register, publicity for meetings, excerpts of prose, poetry and visual materials from the Society’s literary magazine, Surgam, and contemporary news clippings.

It is hoped that this project will lead to enhanced appreciation and awareness of the Philolexian Society both within the Columbia University community and beyond, and it is even possible, given recent increases in the ranks of committed Philo alumni, that publicization of this project may lead to further material commitments towards the Society’s future.

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