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Chautauqua Ecstasy

April 2024
1min read


Alexander Woollcott’s remark about failing in the spelling match at Chautauqua brought back a vivid memory of my own brief sojourn at that gathering of uplift and culture. My father was a Congregational minister, and one summer in the early twenties our whole family spent a week at Chautauqua. Family spelling bees had long been one of our favorite diversions, and all of us were pretty good—but Father, of course, was perfect. He could spell anything, and we all knew it. So on the hot night of the big Chautauqua spelling match, it didn’t take much urging to get him up on the platform and into the contest. Mother and my two sisters and I sat there proudly, already sure of the glory that soon would be ours when Father spelled down everybody. All went as anticipated—for a while. With a sonorous pulpit delivery that carried clearly across the crowded auditorium, Father unhesitatingly spelled out “desuetude,” “desiccate,” “queue,” and “inoculate.” Several competitors had gone down to defeat when the contest master turned to Father and said, “ Ecstasy .” For just a fraction of a second it seemed to us that Father faltered. But only a fraction; then his familiar, confident voice rang out: “Ecstasy. E-C-S-T-A-C-Y .” There was a moment of dead silence. “Wrong,” said the judge. We gasped. The unthinkable had happened, as if George Washington had admitted telling a lie. Looking ineffably crestfallen, Father descended and came slowly up the aisle. Later, back home, my grandmother made us all feel a little better. “Ecstasy !”she said—Humph! It’s not the kind of word a respectable person has any use for, anyway.”

—E.M.H.

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