“We are here to study literature.”

Motto of the Round Table literary society, Janesville, Wisconsin

Lavinia Goodell’s diaries and letters tell us that she was a voracious reader. She read contemporary authors (Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe), classics (Shakespeare),  and scientific works (Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.”) 1870s Janesville, Wisconsin was home to two literary societies, and, not surprisingly, Lavinia was active in both.

In 1874, Jenkin L. Jones, the pastor of Janesville’s Unitarian Church, and his wife Susan organized the Mutual Improvement Club. The group met twice a month, and its purpose was to “establish social fellowship around the lasting and cosmopolitan verities of letters, art and life.” It does not appear that Lavinia began attending club meetings until early 1877, but from then on she was a regular participant.

In September 1877, Pastor Jones asked Lavinia to present a program on Margaret Fuller. Lavinia took the assignment seriously. Her diary contains numerous notations indicating that she was reading Fuller’s works and preparing her remarks. Her December 17, 1877 diary entry noted,  “I read my Margaret Fuller. It was warmly rec’d.” In March of 1879 she reported leading a discussion on Mary Lamb. Other authors discussed at the Mutual Improvement Club included Coleridge, Thoreau, George Eliot, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Janesville’s second literary society was called the Round Table, and Lavinia was a founding member. Her April 18, 1876 diary entry said, “In evening went to meeting for forming literary society; spoke and was put on committee.” According to a pamphlet that was printed in May of 1880 to commemorate the group’s fourth anniversary, the plan for the club had been proposed some months earlier but “there was needed not a little canvassing and consultation to enlist a sufficient number to assure success.” Lavinia and her neighbor, close friend, and fellow temperance advocate, Mrs. D. A. (Dorcas Amanda) Beale “presented various considerations favoring the formation of the club.” Lavinia was appointed to the Round Table’s executive committee, a position she held until her death.

Like the Mutual Improvement Club, the Round Table met “fortnightly.” For the first two years meetings were held in the rooms of the Classical Academy in Mitchell’s Block, at the corner of West Milwaukee and Franklin Streets, very near Lavinia’s law office. The average attendance at meetings was eighty.

Round Table members included many prominent Janesville citizens including Lavinia’s “brothers in law,” John Cassoday, H.S. Hudson, and Pliny Norcross. Angie King, who in 1879 became Wisconsin’s third woman lawyer and for a short time was Lavinia’s law partner, was a member, as was Lavinia’s close friend, Rev. T. P. Sawin, pastor of the First Congregational Church. Lavinia’s father, Rev. William Goodell, was also a member until his death in early 1878. The Janesville Gazette routinely printed notices of upcoming meetings and afterward would share summaries of the programs.

Lavinia’s diaries recount her attending Round Table programs on Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Wordsworth, Byron, Scott, Ruskin, Macaulay, and Carlyle. She frequently expressed her satisfaction with the meetings. “Had interesting time.” “Lovely evening.” “A very social genial time.”

After Lavinia’s death in March of 1880, Round Table members passed a Resolution honoring her:

Resolved, that the ROUND TABLE hereby acknowledges and puts on record its profound sorrow for its loss in the departure of our beloved friend and valued coadjutor, its high appreciation of her literary talents, her genial social qualities, her devoted Christian philanthropy, her earnest efforts in promoting a generous and comprehensive culture, both of mind and heart; and her faithfulness and loyalty to this society as an advisor and laborer, both in executive office and the details of our literary work.

Rev. Sawin wrote a heartfelt memorial tribute to Lavinia that was printed in the program for the Round Table’s fourth anniversary celebration:

When she moved to Janesville she gave up active business and devoted herself to the care of her aged parents for the rest of their life. Yet the instinct of study and work was upon her, and in accordance with her father’s desire, she began the study of law, and was admitted to practice.

All of this discipline of writing, editing and professional life made her an invaluable assistant in the work of the ROUND TABLE. To her we are indebted for many suggestions which culminated in the analytical programs of our Club. She was also ever ready to do her part in the preparation of essays, and in the mutual discussions which followed.

She always held inflexibly to the motto of our cub, “We are here to study literature,” she said, “and life is too short for gathering flowers only, when we may gather both flowers and fruit.”

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diaries, 1876 – 1879; Janesville Gazette 1876 – 1879; The Round Table Sketch (1880);



Leave a Reply