“We have what Frenchmen call a ‘cliqué,’
Who entertain a sort of pique
Against all sacrilegious wights
Who meddle with their sacred rights.”
The Mysteries of Charleston (1846)
Humans naturally follow the crowd and assume that popularity arises from some merit in that which is popular, and unpopularity from some demerit in that which is not. While it is true that the food in a crowded restaurant is often better than the food in a restaurant where listless waiters lean against the bar and flick flies with stained towels, those who follow the crowd are usually following what the crowd follows. And the crowd is usually following a clique or a claque.
Texas ranchers sometimes insert a donkey into a herd of cattle because a donkey is more intelligent than a cow, and thus has the sense to trot over to the rancher’s truck when he shows up to deliver feed. Cattle lack the wit to know that a pickup truck means that it is chow time, but a few will follow the lead of the donkey, and the rest will follow the lead of those few.
Cliques and claques work like that donkey. Both words come from the French and literally mean sharp sounds, the one like the click of a latch and the other like a clap of thunder.
A claque takes its name from the “thunderous applause” it is hired to raise in order to simulate (and stimulate) wild enthusiasm for a performance and a performer. The word originated in Parisian theaters in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1869, a traveler in Paris described it this way.
“Seated usually in the parquet . . . and directly under the chandelier, a row of persons, varying from half a dozen to thirty, may be seen every evening, wet or dry, who never get tired of seeing the same piece, and who never forget to applaud in the proper places, provided always that they have been properly paid therefore” (1)
The same writer continues.
“In the midst of the party sits the chef, who gives the cue when to applaud, to whom the rest look for all their instructions, and the movement of whose hands they follow. The chef is paid a certain sum by the management of the theater, but his principle receipts are from authors who are about producing new pieces, from young actors and actresses, or those who desire to create an unusual sensation.”
The parquet was the ground floor of a theater, and the earliest claques took this position in the expectation that their wild approbation would spread by contagion through the regular audience that was seated around them. In time this simple ruse was detected, so claques dispersed throughout the theater.
As the opera singer Mary Mellish explained, in early twentieth-century New York “the claque members . . . know their scores and are placed at points of vantage throughout the house,” and “at the proper instant their applause and bravos were taken up by the audience.” The job of a claque was to “break in . . . at the most propitious instant and start the applause.” For a set fee, they would also ensure curtain calls and encores. “A friend of mine,” Mellish tells us, “singing her first big role, was guaranteed a certain number of curtain calls for a flat sum and extra calls pro rata” (2).
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Whereas a claque serves to simulate popular approval, a clique serves to simulate critical acclaim. An artist who hires a claque is assured of thunderous applause from the cheap seats; an artist supported by the right clique is assured of “puffery” and “boosting” by influential critics and connoisseurs. As the American art critic Sheridan Ford explained at the turn of the nineteenth century:
“Impossible paintings vie with each other in chase of the medal; the clique in power bestows the coveted prize with conscientious partiality, and the mob applauds” (3).
Puffery is the art of making something or someone appear bigger and better than it actually is, or they actually are. When a man puffs himself, we dismiss it as ridiculous boasting. But when a circle of men puff each other in a “mutual admiration society,” the suckers often show why they bear that name.
The phrase “mutual admiration society” (or “society of mutual admiration”) was popularized by the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858), but was likely first used to describe the Boston literary clique that controlled the North American Review in the 1830s and 1840s. Sometimes called the Five of Clubs, this clique and the Review played a central role in the installation of New England Unitarianism as the official literary culture of the United States (4). The name of Mutual Admiration Society was later expanded to cover “the whole literati of Boston,” and such organs of opinion as the Atlantic Magazine, the imputation being that New Englanders occupied the commanding heights of American thought and literature because they operated as a clique (5).
I know of no decisive explanation why an exclusive circle of ambitious friends came to be known as a clique, but it seems reasonable to accept the hypothesis that it is an onomatopoeic reference to the sound of a door being latched or a bolt being drawn. In popular usage, clique now means an exclusive circle from which all others are locked out, and to those who are locked out, such circles have the appearance of a clandestine conspiracy.
As an admired member of the Boston literati, Holmes denied that they were a conspiracy, and ridiculed the notion that
“a circle of clever fellows, who meet together to dine and have a good time, have signed a constitutional compact to glorify themselves and to put down . . . the fraction of the human race not belonging to their number.”
He dismissed this suspicion as mere jealously on the part of disappointed mediocrities.
Holmes apparently failed to reflect on the meaning of the words “mutual admiration,” since the members of a clique glorify each other because they actually do see each other as glorious. A clique does not need anything so sordid as a “constitutional compact” to put outsiders down, but only requires mutual admiration for the unique tastes and talents that are embodied most perfectly in the members of the clique.
A successful clique succeeds in identifying its own tastes and talents as the essence of literature, and then bask in the glory of being, by their own definition, the literati. As Edward Bulwer Lytton explained
“Some few years ago, there was the Author’s clique of Albemarle Street, a circle of gentlemen who professed to weigh out to each man his modicum of fame; they praised each other—were the literary class . . .” (6).
(1) E. Gould Buffum, Sights and Sensations in France, Germany and Switzerland (1869).
(2) Mary Flannery Mellish, Sometimes I Reminisce (1941).
(3) Sheridan Ford, The Art of Folly (1901)
(4) Edward Everett Hale, James Russell Lowell and his Friends (1899)
(5) See the letter from Robert Anderson Wilson, an aggrieved historian, in George Ticknor, Papers Discussing the Comparative Merits of Prescott’s and Wilson’s Histories (1861)
(6) Edward Bulwer Lytton, England and the English (1833).