Camp Site

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A second spin-off proved more lasting. The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, which was founded in 1878 as a four-year reading program, calls itself the first book club in the world. It’s still in business. Without anyone checking up on you, you sign up to read five books a year for four years and “graduate” after that period. Books are sold at a discount, and readers are encouraged to come to Chautauqua to discuss them with their authors. The reading program caught on fast, spreading into culture-starved towns of the Midwest, lumber camps, and isolated farms. A Mississippi riverboat captain wrote in, “When I stand on the deck on stormy nights I have something to think about,” and from a farmer’s wife: “I have done my reading while driving the horses for the past two months.”

With its passion for weighty ideas, its fenced safety, and its Victorian charm, Chautauqua has always been an easy target for critics. The philosopher William James called it “the middle class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear.” And Rudyard Kipling, who visited for a weekend in 1884, dismissed it out of hand. “People don’t get educated that way. They must dig for it, and cry for it, and sit up o’nights for it. …” Yet what did Kipling know, really, about the woman behind the plow, lost in her books?

The Chautauquans I met rather cheerfully advanced criticism of their fenced-in paradise, then laughed it off.

There are and always were a lot of rules at Chautauqua, necessary, I’m told, to maintain an air of civility in such close quarters. From an early page of regulations on exhibit at the library I read, “All boisterousness, loud talking and unseemly behavior in the public streets are forbidden.” A current list is handed out with your ticket of admission. It takes up several pages and explains that the full list may be consulted at the gatehouse.

“They froze this place in 1894,” remarked one resident. “It’s a very pleasant concentration camp,” he added. Very pleasant indeed, since this man and his wife bought a house at Chautauqua two summers ago, after visiting there for the first time. The Chautauquans I met rather cheerfully advanced criticism of their fencedin paradise and then laughed it off. “People either love it or hate it,” Isabel Pedersen told me. She’s been coming here since she was a child in the 1930s, inhabiting a big white house that fronts the lake. For her, as for so many longtime residents, this is is where families can connect. “Chautauqua was the formative influence on us and our children. It’s where we put down our roots,” said Mrs. Pedersen.

Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP