- Historic Sites
Utopia By The Lake
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
There were dissident voices, however, even then. One of the clearest, cutting through the summer air, belonged to William James, the psychologist and brother of the novelist. Raised in the East and in Europe and steeped in much older, rooted cultures, James was appalled by the brushed-on stuff at Chautauqua. He admitted that he had been temporarily pleased by the facilities and amenities: I went in curiosity for a day. I stayed for a week, held spellbound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middleclass paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear. And yet … And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage, even though it were as bad as an Armenian massacre, to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring. This human drama without a villain or a pang; this community so refined that ice-cream soda-water is the utmost offering it can make to the brute animal in man; this city simmering in the tepid lakeside sun; this atrocious harmlessness of all things, I cannot abide with them … in this unspeakable Chautauqua there was no potentiality of death in sight anywhere, and no point of the compass visible from which danger might possibly appear. …”
Bourgeoisie and mediocrity, church sociables and teachers’ conventions, are taking the place of the old heights and depths and romantic chiaroscuro. And, to get human life in its wild intensity, we must in future turn more and more away from the actual, and forget it, if we can, in the romancer’s or the poet’s pages. The whole world, delightful and sinful as it may still appear to one just escaped from the Chautauquan enclosure, is nevertheless obeying more and more just those ideals that are sure to make of it in the end a mere Chautauqua Assembly on an enormous scale. … Even now, in our own country, correctness, fairness, and compromise for every small advantage are crowding out all other qualities. The higher heroisms and the old rare flavors are passing out of life.
Most people, however, thought Chautauqua was doing extraordinarily good work. By 1886 more than thirty imitation assemblies had sprung up, most of them faithful copies and most of them with Dr. Vincent’s blessing. Sometime in the 1890's travelling tent shows, unauthorized by the parent Chautauqua, picked up the commercially hot Chautauqua name and offered a combination of popular music and political oratory all over the Midwest. The travelling Chautauquas watered down their culture; as a result, Booker T. Washington or Billy Sunday would find a trained seal or Swiss bell-ringers on the same program with him. William Jennings Bryan’s favorite platform was a travelling Chautauqua tent, and he said in 1914: The privilege and opportunity of addressing from one to seven thousand of his fellow Americans, in the Chautauqua frame of mind, in the mood which almost as clearly asserts itself under the tent or amphitheatre as does reverence under the “dim religious light"—this privilege and this opportunity is one of the greatest that any patriotic American could ask.
The travelling Chautauquas, like the original, became national organs of communication. Anything said at Chautauqua was sure to be heard—all over the Midwest, at least. When, in 1904, Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American place in America,” he really was acknowledging the same quality that appealed to Bryan and repelled William James: the American dream of the educated pastoral man, the utopia in the wilderness.
And everybody came to Chautauqua. The Studebakers built a “cottage” at Chautauqua, as did a cadet branch of the Heinz family. The Brown shoe people from St. Louis came for the season, and so did the Norths, who owned the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The queen of the summer people, at the very top of Chautauqua’s society, was Lewis Miller’s daughter, Mina, who had married Thomas Edison in 1886. Cars and pickles and Buster Brown shoes and circuses and the electric light bulb the staples of home life were the support of Chautauqua, the ideal village.