I am an American, Midwestern-born, and I have gone at American things. I have skinnydipped and snowmobiled, bowled with others and bowled alone. I know the lyrics to “It’s a Small World” by heart; I brighten at the sound of bat hitting ball; I have been known to frequent parades. But if Teddy Roosevelt was right when he declared the Chautauqua to be “the most American thing in America,” I confess I’ve been too long a stranger in my own land. How many times have I seen this strange word, puzzled over references to the great cultural movement it signified, and yet troubled myself so little to discover its meaning. The Chautauqua may be as deep in the American grain as door-to-door salesmen and Sunday football, but to me it’s always been as much a relic of bygone America as the bison.
So, when I heard that Chautauqua was being revived in the midst of the great American heartland, my patriotic duty was dear: I had to set out for the Midwestern prairie to stalk this great buffalo of the American mind.
There’s nothing better than a lazy summer evening spent with chinking ice under a canvas tent—I mean the circus kind, the billowing striped affair that says summertime! and reeks of high-rent clowns or holy matrimony—except when it’s hot and mosquitoes are out in force and the drinks truck is cashed out and the tent guys you watched assemble the tent didn’t seem sure where to put the poles in. Tonight in western Illinois it’s nearly ninety-five degrees and there’s no breeze and the chair is as hard as pavement and the poles are leaning and creaking and making to fall; plus I’m waiting for Coco Chanel, the first speaker I’ve come to see at the weeklong Heartland Chautauqua.
A century ago, traveling Chautauquas—“peripatetic cultural circuses,” one historian called them—began a generation’s run as the most popular entertainment of the age. Back then, I could have spent a summer’s week with several thousand other people listening to high-minded lectures by muckrakers and novelists, scientists and seekers, all accompanied by a steady stream of light music and entertainments under a big canvas tent. These days, in the variant revived under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the tents are back, the crowds are returning, and the music is as schmaltzy as ever. But whereas in the original Chautauqua the crowds enjoyed the oratory of the foremost minds of their time, the crowds today look on in bemusement as teachers and actors dressed as popular figures from history deliver monologues in character. Tonight, a three-piece band called No Reason has just finished belting out some Crosby, Stills & Nash covers, and Coco Chanel is due onstage any minute.
Crowds look on in bemusement as teachers and actors dressed as popular figures from history deliver monologues in character.
I’ve taken an aisle seat in the back of the big striped tent—the art of emergency lecture hall escapes dies hard—and am waiting for the interminable pre-event gratitude to be expressed to everyone’s content. The organizer, earnest and bluff, thanks a long list of major corporations for their support, then thanks another long list of local businessmen whom everyone else seems to know personally and who seem to have given their life fortunes or lungs to make Heartland Chautauqua happen this year. Finally, the emcee pauses and looks out at us—there are about sixty people in the audience, but I’m pretty sure he’s looking directly at me—and speaks the dread words: “So come with me now, as we go back in history, to a time when….” I have a feeling I remember from the first day of class—must leave now—but to my left, blocking the aisle, is a tangle of wide women who won’t take their seats. There will be no easy escape.
When I turn back to the stage, the organizer is gone and the lights are low. There’s a whoosh in the crowd, necks craning as Coco enters the tent behind us and swishes up to the stage. We’re all silent now, and even the rambunctious teens in back seem resigned to sticking it out. It’s somehow getting hotter as the sun begins to set, and Coco has not been to this part of Illinois before: She is overdressed and sweating profusely and seems about to faint. She adjusts the microphone and looks out at us. Here, in the Illinois heat, this thoughtful, kindly woman is about to humiliate herself—and us—by acting out some fantasy. It’s like watching a middle-aged mortgage banker or contractor win a pregame trip to the pitcher’s mound of his favorite ballpark. Lumbering out of the crowd in tasseled loafers and polo shirt, he is still the authoritative man behind a desk who denies your loan application or installs your patio deck; a moment later, huffing up on the mound, he is reduced to middle youth, the time of wide-eyed love for plastic infantrymen and sweet soda pop and brightly colored bags of chips. Up there on the stage this woman of grace and gravitas, this respected holder of advanced degrees, is going to bomb. And I am embarrassed for her and for me and for all of us.
“There was no public lecture till Emerson made it,” Bronson Alcott said. Emerson was stiff on stage and often hard to understand, but his lectures were a national phenomenon in the middle of the nineteenth century. In a journal entry from 1839, soon after he took to the stage, Emerson declared the public lecture to be “a new literature, which leaves aside all tradition, time, place, circumstances, and addresses an assembly as mere human beings, no more.” He went on to deliver as many as fifteen hundred lectures in the subsequent forty years, crossing the country to present his ideas in public, as one mere human being to another.
The Chautauquas grew from these roots. Schooled on Emerson’s lectures, inspired by the rising tide of mass education after the Civil War, and fueled by a radical faith in the democratic spirit, Lewis Miller, an Akron machine-tool manufacturer already famed for his Buckeye Mower and Reaper, and the Rev. John Heyl Vincent, a prominent Methodist minister, established what would become the Chautauqua in 1874. They transformed a former Methodist meeting site near a lake in western New York into a grand training institute for Sunday school teachers. (Some say the local Indians called the lake “Bag Tied in the Middle,” or Chautauqua.)
Emersonian to the core, Miller and Vincent believed in self-improvement for its own sake, an uplift untarnished by personal advancement or private profit. As Vincent wrote, they hoped to “educate the people, and all the people—the poorest and meanest of them—until in lordly way, worthy of royal blood, they refuse to be trodden upon or ordered about.”
Miller and Vincent’s plans were a success from the start. Audiences virtually tripled in each of the first few years, and the Chautuaqua Assembly expanded from two weeks to eight and from a local affair into a regional, and finally, national movement. Political leaders swiftly realized the opportunities Chautauqua’s platform presented. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant steamboated in, and in 1880 presidential candidate James A. Garfield declared, “It has been the struggle of the world to get more leisure, but it was left for Chautauqua to show how to use it.” By the 1880s, Chautauqua was the chief symbol and main exponent of the idea of popular education for all.
But it was the institution’s next twenty-five years that would leave its lasting legacy: the tradition of traveling or “circuit” Chautauqua. Midwestern entrepreneurs, the 100 percent Americans so familiar from Sinclair Lewis’s acid portraits and Sherwood Anderson’s bitter tales, formed centralized firms in Chicago, Kansas City, and Cedar Rapids to organize Chautauqua circuits: A group of speakers and entertainers would be booked, a week of Chautauqua would be offered to towns along the route of a major railroad, and the Chautauquans would “morally roll along,” as one participant put it, from one town to the next throughout the summer.
In 1923, circuit Chautauqua was perhaps the most popular form of public entertainment in the country, with 10 million people buying tickets.
The firms appealed to the civic pride and nose for profit of each town’s leading businessmen to guarantee advance subscriptions and thereby ensure the Chautauqua’s presence the following summer. Once a Chautauqua was booked and the happy day approached, Main Street’s finest would naturally cajole their neighbors and friends into attending.
The week would then feature a mix of educational and inspirational lecturers leavened by light entertainers and musicians. There were preachers, explorers, scientists, and statesmen; glee clubs, accordionists, and bell ringers; elocutionists, novelists, yodelers, and whistlers. One participant described them as “the greatest aggregation of performers the world has ever known.”
Soon what was known as the “Chautauqua belt” spread across the Midwest, as a core of about thirty Chautauqua towns in 1904 grew to at least ten thousand in 1921. By 1923, circuit Chautauqua was perhaps the most popular form of public entertainment in the country, with 10 million people buying tickets and as many as 35 million paying admission. “Our year is made up of fifty-one weeks of humdrum slavery,” wrote one South Dakota farmer’s wife, “and one week of Chautauqua.” The following year, the height of circuit Chautauqua’s glory, the editor of The New Republic declared:
[N]owhere else under the quiet stars of this moment will you find a more characteristic expression of the American idea.
When I ask the organizer of the present-day Heartland Chautauqua why they’ve chosen to come to Monmouth, Illinois, she says there is a great tradition of Chautauqua in the area, and she shows me a photograph of a circuit Chautauqua held in Monmouth in 1911: striped tents amid the trees; neckties and boaters and flouncing skirts everywhere. But she doesn’t know much else about it, so I head to the Galesburg Public Library, a half hour west of here, to see what I can find out.
In Galesburg, the librarian tells me that there were Chautauquas in Monmouth, but the big ones were right here in Galesburg, with its Burlington Northern railroad station and distinguished Knox College in town. After a little searching, she hands me a manila folder stuffed with programs from the Galesburg Chautauquas of 1898 to 1902. That first year, 1898, the Chautauqua tent out by Rice Lake held 2,500 people.
I’m staring at the 1899 program, regretting that I’ve come a century late to hear the Hon. A. Spencer Zook on “Known and Unknown Quantities,” Col. H. W. J. Ham on “The Snollygoster in Politics,” and the Rev. Lewis L. Thomas on “Saloonism versus God,” when an old man walks up to the reference desk to ask a question of the librarian’s young deputy, a prim and proper girl who seems finished with a year or two at Galesburg High School.
“Ma’am, excuse me,” he says. “Excuse me, but can you help me find out how to spell shillelagh?”
The deputy is nonplussed. “Shillelagh?”
Yeah, shillelagh, you know, an old walking stick. I used the word the other day in the grocery store. It’s a kind of stick. I said to a woman there, who was walking with a cane, Boy, you’ve got a big shillelagh. She said, Why, I never thought of that. It’s a kind of stick.
The deputy pulls down a Webster’s, riffles through to S and, her finger in the page, reads out how to spell shillelagh to the man. He says thank you and heads out.
The Heartland folks have set up their tent on the campus of Monmouth College, and by early evening the audience starts to arrive. You know them already: They are familiar from a continuous tape-loop of TV features on the run-up to the Iowa Caucus or the aftermath of a Missouri heat wave; it’s a kind of fantasy audience for publishers of anchorman memoirs and organizers of ice cream socials—a lot of silent, crease-faced men in windbreakers and baseball hats advertising farm machinery and aircraft carriers, led about by kindly women with strong arms and an air of impatience. It is the same crowd, if older and less formally dressed, that the circuit Chautauqua drew a century ago.
Today the Heartland Chautauqua’s theme is the Roaring Twenties. Besides Coco Chanel, they’ve lined up an eclectic mix of twenties icons: the rising young Missouri politician Harry Truman; the liberalizing first pastor of Riverside Church in New York, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick; and the Kalamazoo novelist Edna Ferber, flush with the success of Show Boat and So Big (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924). But tonight belongs to Henry Ford. A larger crowd is here than turned out for Coco, and I’m in an aisle seat in the back again as Henry Ford makes his way to the stage.
Playing Henry Ford is Doug Mishler, a typical modern Chautauquan. He’s got a PhD in American cultural history, he tells a story with vigor and charm, and he wears a wig well. Like virtually all the other Chautauquans I talk to, he loves Chautauqua, he’s been doing it for years, and he has played a variety of characters—P.T. Barnum, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Lloyd Garrison, among others.
Here we are, a couple hundred of us under a tent on a lovely summer’s night, listening to the past—and the past is mocking us.
Henry Ford tells a joke as soon as he grabs the microphone. “You all know what the UAW-CIO stands for, don’t you? Well don’t you? Why, it stands for U Are Working—Cut It Out!” The men in the audience laugh heartily and break into applause. It’s hard to tell whether there’s any irony about the laughter or whether the audience is just as inclined to bust a union as Henry Ford was. Perhaps it’s not surprising; this is, after all, a performance put on by an organization with an airquotes view of history: Its website claims that Heartland Chautauqua is a “revival of that old feeling of excitement when people would spend a week in the summer going to the big tent to hear ‘William Jennings Bryan’ or ‘Andrew Carnegie’ give a lecture.”
The bulk of Henry Ford’s talk is standard stuff: a straightforward if artful recitation of life achievements and world events. He recounts the introduction of the Model T and mass production and his views on the First World War. It’s a live-action Ken Burns documentary right there in front of us, informative and easy to swallow, without the endless slow pans or ubiquitous PBS logo in the corner. Eventually Henry Ford utters his famous line: “History is bunk.” Here we are, a couple hundred of us under a tent on a lovely summer’s night, listening to the past—and the past is mocking us.
The performance ends, and I brace for the questions. Part of the standard drill at Chautauquas now is a section at the end in which the performer answers questions from the audience while still in character. The audience tends to address the performer in character, too, which the organizers seem to like. “Mr. Ford,” someone asks, “what was the source of your anti-Semitism?” Henry Ford gives a long answer, neither dodging the issue nor simplifying it. “Mr. Ford,” someone else asks, “did your views on history ever change?” Henry Ford says he meant his infamous remark as a kind of hymn to innovation, to creative destruction of the old in order to forge the new. I bristle, suspecting he’s about to break into an anachronous paean to the Pursuit of Wow or some other management piety of the recent past. But Henry Ford ventures the guess that many in the future will misquote him, or take his comment out of context, so he reads out the full, original quote:
History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.
Henry Ford has wandered into an interesting thicket of American thought here, the debate over the “usable past” inaugurated by the Chautauqua-era critic Van Wyck Brooks. One need not even leave the confines of Galesburg itself to be reminded how deep this line of thinking runs in American life. At the Carl Sandburg State Historic site in Galesburg, the backyard garden of Sandburg’s boyhood home is filled with paving stones engraved with lines from his poems, including a fragment from his 1918 poem “Prairie”:
I speak of new cities and new people.
I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes.
I tell you yesterday is a wind gone down,
a sun dropped in the west.
I tell you there is nothing in the world,
only an ocean of to-morrows
a sky of to-morrows.
Surely there’s a difference between Ford’s past and Sandburg’s—and especially between the present that the socialist poet and the anti-Semitic auto titan would use their pasts for. But I find myself chewing on bunk and ashes as the next few questions come and go. Why was I inclined to mock the wigged man? The organizers, it turns out, have hired exactly the right Chautauquan, one who says things worth disagreeing with, and I suspect that they have pledged a chicken dinner to any audience member who asks a tough question besides. But then comes a voice from the back: “Mr. Ford,” says a man in a visor and white polo shirt, “I’m a little concerned about how the rumble seat came about. Can you tell us about that?”
The circuit Chautauqua became a kind of pulpit for progress in the years before the First World War, responsible in part for the rapid spread of public support for social reform. “In the tents,” wrote Merle Curti in The Growth of American Thought, “Jane Addams made Hull House live in the minds of rural folk … and Samuel Gompers publicized the aims of the ‘organized toilers.’” The Chautauqua circuit routinely featured these and such other social reformers and muckrakers as Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, Eugene Debs, Booker T. Washington, and Robert La Follette. Ida Tarbell, author of a famous series of essays exposing the practices of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, not only went on the circuit, but edited The Chautauquan for years. Still, she was dubious at first:
Scoffing Eastern friends told me that there would be bell ringers, trained dogs, and Tyrolese yodelers. I found no such entertainment, but I could hardly have fallen in with pleasanter company…. I saw at once that what I had joined was not, as I had hastily imagined, a haphazard semi-business, semi-philanthropic, happy-go-lucky new kind of barnstorming. It was serious work.
In 1908, the Indianapolis News sent a reporter with the Chautauquas through Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. As doubtful as Tarbell and as inclined to scoff as her Eastern friends, the reporter was soon sending back glowing reports of La Follette’s platform tirades against railroad barons, of the success of reformers in the face of “standpatters,” and of the “rising political power of the Chautauqua, from which platform the exponents of progressivism thunder their messages.”
The most famous and crowd-pleasing circuit Chautauquan of them all was William Jennings Bryan, “good for forty acres of parked Fords, any time, anywhere.” Bryan hailed the Chautauquas as a powerful force for molding public opinion, and he delivered thousands of lectures from circuit Chautauqua stages. “People went to a Chautauqua to be stimulated,” wrote another historian. He meant more than just amusement:
They saw their neighbors there. They watched the color creep up the neck of the local banker when Debs castigated the financial interests, and they planned to be present when the banker got his next shave from the barber, an unreconstructed Populist. If Debs had spoken at a political rally, the banker would not have gone, and there would have been no argument to anticipate. But everyone went to Chautauqua.
But others saw in Chautauqua nothing but the cheap uplift of Methodist ministers and second-rate minds. Ever vigilant against the booboisie, H.L. Mencken railed against circuit Chautauqua’s “bombastic trivialities”—its small-mindedness, its sappy moralism and, not least of all, the insistent use of its platform to proselytize for Prohibition (Carry Nation and Billy Sunday were regulars of the Chautauqua stage, too). In his classic 1917 essay “The Sahara of the Bozart,” Mencken blasted the Chautauquas as the “idiotic certainties of ignorant men.” And in 1924, Bruce Bliven summarized the opposition’s view of Chautauqua as “a mediocre enterprise which gives to dull, starved minds the meretricious sustenance they crave.”
As other forms of public entertainment—the radio, the movies, and then television—eclipsed Chautauqua’s audience and renown through the middle of the century, Mencken’s scoffing view is the one that stuck, and it reached me almost undiluted a half-century later.
Still unsure whether Chautauqua is buncombe or better, I’ve come three hundred miles due east (and a century farther in time) to see an Indian chief, a frontiersman, and Johnny Appleseed. They’re all here for a Chautauqua in the tiny village of Archbold, Ohio. Archbold bills itself as “On Your Way to Just About Anywhere”—Interstate 80 runs only a few miles north of here—but everybody knows this is nowhere.
A giant green tent is billowing on the grounds of Historical Sauder Village, a cultural landmark in the area. In fact it’s the only landmark in the area—the solitary red square for miles on Rand McNally’s atlas. Historical Sauder Village was created by Erie J. Sauder, a descendent of the original Mennonite settlers. A former employee of a woodworking company and an expert whittler on the side, Sauder started his own company in 1934 to design and mass-produce ready-to-assemble furniture. Today, Archbold is home to a $500 million company that bears his name, with more than three thousand workers and 5 million square feet of factories. It churns out “oak-style” desks and furniture that anyone who’s been to college or camp or a convalescent home would recognize.
Sauder himself retained his youthful reverence for the handmade. In 1976 he created Historical Sauder Village, a kind of Colonial Williamsburg on the prairie that is filled with ersatz shops demonstrating the fine art of printing or basket-weaving or, the common currency of all heritage sites everywhere, candle-making. In its rustic lanes and quaint buildings, special events are scheduled to fill in the time between Chautauqua performances. There’s an old-time fiddling contest, demonstrations of traditional arts and crafts, an ice cream social, and a barbershop quartet in full regalia. I spend the better part of my first morning watching a man make a broom.
The best count I can come up with suggests there are more than a thousand people here for the Chautauqua. It’s a state fair kind of crowd, with lots of jostling and waiting in lines and calling out for lost children. The organizers are stunned, grateful, impressed. “I just don’t know what to tell you, I’m just flabbergasted,” one tells me. “We weren’t expecting this. Guess we sure know how to turn out.” The Ohioans seem pleased with themselves, like they’ve brought the best dish to the potluck, but they’re also anxious to get on with it.
When evening comes, seats are in short supply. Finally I find one—uncomfortably close to the stage. I coast through the first performance, a tall frontiersman, armed and in fringe. He gives a relentlessly balanced view of historical conflict between settlers and Indians. It’s a largely colorless affair and I grow bored. I’m distracted, too, by the Mennonite families filling many of the center rows. What are they doing here? There are still many Amish and Mennonites living in this part of the Midwest; in fact, Ohio has the largest Amish community in the world—perhaps as many as fifty thousand live here. But I’m surprised a group of people that so adamantly rejects its neighbors’ view of the present would subject itself to its neighbors’ view of the past.
At the first few performances, all the questions are about lost knowledge. Both the kids and the adults want to know about the arts of daily life past: how to ride a horse, how to hunt for squirrels, how to find a swimming hole. The Chautauquans gamely give them their due: The settler’s wife demonstrates the proper use of her apron to bring in garden gatherings; the Indian shows how to cleanly and swiftly scalp a settler’s wife. There’s color here, and not just local. It’s a vast, open-air seminar in pioneer social history.
I’m into it; I’m learning something; I stay. But toward the end I head off to search for the Mennonites. I can see them up ahead, but I am stuck in a crush of people as the Q-and-A session ends and the audience begins to file out. Next to me is an older couple from Napoleon, twelve miles south of here. I ask them why they’ve come. “It’s about history, and we like that,” says the husband, who sells used farm equipment. “Business is good—too good,” he says when I ask him about it. “I end up selling off all my friends’ and neighbors’ stuff.” He says he should have gotten out years ago. His wife is a teacher and she’s on the board of the local library. “We used to have things like this when we were kids, but there hasn’t been anything like it here in a long time.” I talk with a middle-aged man from Defiance who sells insurance. “I’ve lived here my whole life,” he says repeatedly. Defiance was a prominent stop on the Chautauqua circuit in the early years of the twentieth century. William Jennings Bryan gave his “Flower of the Flock” speech there in 1911, and Booker T. Washington came through the following year. But the amphitheater was destroyed in a massive flood in 1913, and Archbold is the closest Chautauqua has come since then. I ask him what he makes of it all and he says, well, he’s lived here his whole life and the closest thing to it he can remember is the Freedom Train, which stopped in Archbold during its Bicentennial-year haul from coast to coast. “It traveled all across the country,” he tells me,
and it carried with it the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and all the trophies from the Major League World Series, just awesome things that never come to our part of the country. Archbold got to host that, and this Chautauqua reminds me so much of it because the community just pours out to support the thing.
I look up for the Mennonites, but they are gone.
The next morning in Historical Sauder Village I watch two ten-year-old boys in nineteenth century garb demonstrate the proper way to play that game with the hoop and stick. My hoop careens off toward the chickens. The kids patiently explain the proper technique to me again, and for a third time. A couple more swats and scared chickens and I give up to go see how rope is made. Here an older kid tells a younger one to hold the rope-making tool, and then they do a hop-footed dance that makes rope appear in the older kid’s hand. I say, “Hot damn!” and the older kid gives me a look. When I ask him whether he’s going to be a professional rope maker when he grows up, he says, “No, it’s just good to know.”
At last the sun begins to slide away and I head back to the big tent. It is packed with people, everyone is here, and it’s impossible to find a seat. The organizers are saying, “I know it, I know it, isn’t it just amazing?” The crowd is buzzing. The Mennonites are back, all up in the front, and I’m left standing on the far right of the stage. It is Johnny Appleseed night.
Hank Fincken is playing Johnny Appleseed at seventy years old, in 1854. From the moment he springs onstage it’s obvious Fincken is a trained actor. His face contorts in mock rage or delight; his voice booms and whines and hides; his phrasing is sharp on the laughs, and when it’s not he follows up with a self-mocking refrain. He is a performer, a good one, and he’s got the crowd with him.
But this is not children’s theater or library story time; this Johnny Appleseed has no pot on his head. In the course of less than an hour, he outlines the troubled relations between Midwestern settlers, Indians, and the English during the War of 1812—and he’s got a stick in for everyone. Johnny Appleseed explains to us the differences between various sorts of apples, demonstrates how to graft an apple tree and properly plant a seed, and reveals which apples grew here in the corner of Ohio and why. Then he explains the process by which pioneers establish a claim to land, describes the travails of prairie settlers, and defends vegetarianism. He spends his remaining time detailing the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg, the nineteenth century mystic, to which he subscribes.
When it’s over I wade through the long applause to talk to Fincken. I wait as lines of fans come to greet him and get an autograph, and when at last we talk, we are the last ones there, more than an hour after the performance, and Historical Sauder Village staff in petticoats and bonnets are imploring us to leave so they can dismantle the benches and remove the bunting.
Fincken says he tries to capture the contradiction in the character of John Chapman (he insists on referring to Johnny Appleseed by his real name). He presents Chapman and his role on the Ohio frontier, he says, as a kind of lesson in prairie religiosity and practical education, staying sensitive to the complexities of history even as he strives to make Chapman dramatically appealing.
“The hard part,” he says, “is do I present the character in terms of our values today, or do I present him in terms of his values then?” Fincken points out that another character he sometimes plays, a California gold miner circa 1849, was as contemptuous of the local Indians as any of his fellow miners, but he proposed paying them a fee to use their land. “In today’s world,” Fincken says, “he would be considered a kind of Indian-hater, but in his time he was considered very much a liberal!”
He’s right, but I’m still not convinced he couldn’t just give a lecture; why must he dress up and speak in character? Fincken claims that performance gives him and the audience a chance to see into the character more closely, more intensely, than would a traditional lecture. But isn’t that just an excuse for second-rate, television-style dramatic reconstruction?
“No,” he says. “People get tired of that slick stuff. Look, TV has invaded every place we have. This is not TV—the show you saw cannot be redone exactly. Of course we’d be lying if we said we recaptured history, but we give a good solid glimpse of the past, and that glimpse is how we came to be.”
Sitting outside the tent, the sun going down, the Sauder Village maidens now exhorting us to leave, I am not sure. Wasn’t this just another example of how we treat the past as just so much retro plunder? How we treat the past like some aging boar, removing its fangs and helping it up the steps to Disney’s stage? Still, I was sorry it was over, and was mulling whether I could manage to graft an apple tree in my own backyard.
Some say the demise of the railroads killed off the Chautauqua circuit, others that radio and the movies dealt the mortal blow. But all agree that by the late twenties the circuit was dominated by sappy emotionalizers, charlatans, and inspirational speakers; that the Chautauqua movement, as one historian wrote, “was drowned in a flood of pap.”
Most of the talks I saw in Illinois and Ohio proved that the flood has not yet subsided. They were historical melodramas or personal accounts of achievement, an approach to history cribbed from Behind the Music reruns and motivational infomercials. I was born, I overcame hurdles, I emerged victorious. You can, too. A far cry from starchy Victorian self-improvement; it is self-help at its soggiest.
And Chautauqua’s careful dodging of the American present makes its tent a canvas cage, a bubble in which to hide from the light and heat of the world. It is one thing to hear Bob La Follette assail the trusts and another to hear “Bob La Follette” talk about how he used to assail the trusts. The original Chautauqua circuit, for all of its flaws, was about the American Now, with all its thorns and roses; today’s revived version has nothing but dead flowers to show.
Lewis Mumford once wrote that what Emerson aimed for was “intellectual, or cultural, nakedness: the virtue of getting beyond the institution, the habit, the ritual, and finding out what it means afresh in one’s own consciousness.” The revived Chautauqua will not restore the lecture’s pride of place in public life, and though there may be a “Ralph Waldo Emerson” or two among its costumed speakers, there are no Emersons there.
Still, in some of the talks I could detect a trace of the old spirit of betterment for its own sake, of the noble nineteenth century movement to offer education to all—the same spirit that animated Carnegie’s campaign for public libraries. Like a library’s stacks, Chautauqua is full of the dusty, the moldy, and the second-rate. But also like those stacks, it is a place to browse and wander, and among the happy sleepers out there in the crowd, I kept thinking that there might be someone, someone nobody knows, having the experience Richard Wright described in Black Boy—the moment out of the sun, the epiphany of the library card.