- Historic Sites
Utopia By The Lake
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
For people who couldn’t get to Chautauqua, Dr. Vincent started in 1878 the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle—the first book club and correspondence course in America. This was a four-year course: the first one offered the chief civilizations of the world; later there were courses on history, literature, and science. The response was overwhelming. All over the land, farmers, storekeepers, and their wives met in village groups one afternoon a month to talk about things that once only a preacher might have known. A group in an Iowa town debated what Aristotle’s teachings meant, while in Ohio another pondered Napoleon’s campaigns. A letter from a farmwife explaining to the circle’s secretary why she was late with her assignment expresses the terrible hunger that Chautauqua somehow filled: I live on a farm, and my husband has no help except what I give him. All of the time I am not doing housework, I am obliged to drive the horse at the horsepower … I have done my reading while driving the horse for the last two months, but I cannot write while driving.
Each year, when a four-year course was completed, there was a graduation ceremony, known as Recognition Day, at Chautauqua for all the readers who could get there. The old Grecian Hall of Philosophy was replaced in the early i goo’s by a temple modelled on the Parthenon. A long walkway led up to this new Hall of Philosophy from a white archway at the foot of the walk. On Recognition Day a gilded wooden gate was hung in the arch, and the graduates literally went through the Golden Gate, led—as a photograph from 191 o shows—by sixty flower girls, in pairs, who strewed the path with gladiolas, daisies, and roses as the graduates passed under the arch. The diplomas carried arcane terms conferring distinction, depending upon how many books a graduate had read. There was a seal for each reading course completed, a special seal (which nearly everyone got) for having read through the Bible, and, highest of all, for the reader of numerous books beyond the assigned number, membership in the “Guild of the Seven Seals.” But these honors, faintly smelling of the fraternal lodge, were not really what Recognition Day was about. As Dr. Vincent wrote, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was meant for ambitious people who still foster “ideals,” who in good health although no longer young, hope and resolve to go on and on and up and “higher yet” until they shall be accounted among those “who are worthy to be crowned. ”
And Recognition Day was when the “Golden Gate” shall be opened and children with their baskets of flowers, conforming to customs from time immemorial, will strew with blossoms the pathway of pilgrims under the arches of the “Hall on the Hill.”
In other words, study was a way to salvation, and graduating was heaven. Which was probably not an exaggerated metaphor for the whole new world that circle books offered the lady who had to help her husband “at the horsepower.”
As part of the same impulse to provide culture and refinement to the world, the leaders of Chautauqua chartered Chautauqua University, and for a while an accredited degree was given. The charter was dropped in 1890, when the leaders realized that Chautauqua was never meant to give academic credit. The preachers and doctors and schoolteachers who came already had degrees, and everybody else who came had worked for a lifetime without one. They wanted Chautauqua’s “culture and refinement” because they were starved for it, not because it carried a degree. Besides, there was more prestige in studying because you didn’t have to than in studying because you did. Chautauqua offered culture as a status symbol and as a vaguely transcendental means of salvation to an America that was ready for it on both counts. President James A. Garfield, the third President to visit, after Grant and Rutherford P. Hayes, said that Chautauqua was trying to “open out fields of thought, to open out energies, a largeness of mind, a culture in the better senses, with the varnish scratched off.”