July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
A visitor to the Victorian enclave in western New York called the Chautauqua Institution will likely notice more than one inhabitant wearing a blue sweat shirt with the legend “London, Paris, Rome, Chautauqua. ” How equal a grouping this is depends, of course, on one’s own perception. Still, it’s a measure of how far this 117-year-old Methodist campground in the woods has come.
“The stars were out and looked down through trembling leaves upon a goodly, well-wrapped company who sat in the grove, filled with wonder and hope,” recalled the cofounder, Dr. John Heyl Vincent, of the first gathering there on August 4, 1874. Vincent, a Methodist minister from Pennsylvania, had joined forces with Lewis Miller, an Akron manufacturer, to lease a fifty-acre camp on the shores of Chautauqua Lake for the training of Sunday-school teachers. Advertised widely in church publications, that first two-week session was unimaginably successful, drawing twenty-five thousand participants from twentyfive states, Britain, Canada, and India.
The season tripled in length within six years, and a sense of permanence settled in. People bought their tents and set them up on platforms leased from the Institution. When they started to erect permanent wooden cottages in all the lacy, fanciful styles offered by the Victorian age, many clung to their memories of days under canvas by constructing a hybrid half-tent, half-cottage.
Although founded for religious training and by a specific Protestant denomination, the place from the first was remarkably open to all manner of thought and even—with mysterious foresight—prepared to equip Americans for a new century. The tumultuous age seemed to require a calm and pleasant place to examine the nature of the world, to see it whole and clear.
The source of this clear-sightedness must be found in the characters of the two founders. “We are all one on these grounds,” declared Lewis Miller. “No matter to what denomination you belong; no matter what creed, no matter to what political party.… And so here you are welcome to go about examining the various organizations and the various schemes and methods … taking such things as you want. Believe just what you want to, what you please about them and take them with you or leave them here as you like.”
For years visitors traveled here by steamboat, stepping onto a landing near the original campsite, at a grassy point that is now named Miller Park. These days everyone arrives by car, through lush, hilly farm country, to pull up at a gatehouse that punctuates a fence that surrounds half the 758acre property. (The other half is bordered by the lake.) Visitors can stop long enough to unload luggage and then must drive back to a parking lot. Shuttle buses and trams continuously ply the grounds, but since the place is only a mile and a half long and a halfmile from lake to gate, nothing is very far away.
Because automobile traffic is so strictly limited, the narrow streets seem uncrowded. A winding red-brick path leads the stroller past the sites of public events. Mature beech, maple, and pine trees line the walks and cast deep shade over tiny Carpenter Gothic cottages and amply proportioned houses in the Eastlake or Queen Anne style. Every street has its quota of church-owned buildings offering housing for vacationing clergy or youth groups.
Three open-air halls hold most of the lectures and performances. You can drop in on the rehearsals that go on throughout the day, and you can hear them as you walk through the village. The sounds of music shimmer in the air, sometimes colliding with one another in the most amiable way, as the high notes of an aria climb above the trees, a jazz trio warms up, and chimes from the bell tower mark the quarter-hour.
The July week I was there was given over to the subject of communications, with a number of journalists on hand to deliver talks. The New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury packed three fluent addresses into a couple of days as he related his experiences during the 1989 Chinese revolution and provided dark impressions of a trip to Russia. “The great American era that followed World War II is drawing to a close, but on a triumphant note,” he told overflow audiences.
The founder John Vincent once spoke of “the quickening and awakening which comes from great ideas.” Ulysses S. Grant, a visitor in the second year, was the first of many American leaders to enter Chautauqua’s gates. Teddy Roosevelt came several times, and his cousin Franklin delivered his “I Hate War” speech at the amphitheater. At the same time, Chautauqua found room for a language school, art classes, music lessons, and evenings of theater, all of which continue today.
In 1904 success bred traveling shows, run by independent operators, which flourished in rural America for twenty years. Only the Model T left a greater impression upon small-town cultural and social life, claims one writer. At its peak, traveling Chautauqua drew thirty million Americans into thousands of stuffy brown tents to be shocked or fascinated by the likes of Eugene Debs and Lincoln Steffens or amused by Swiss bell ringers and Japanese acrobats. Faced with the competition of movies, radio, and the automobile, these offshoots faded out in the late 1920s.
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?
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.