Chautauqua: a paragraph, perhaps a half-page, in my high school US History textbook; or Robert Pirsig’s term to characterize his self-communing in Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And then there is The Chautauqua Institution of 2015, a gated village of 750 acres, host to thousands of people – some true Chautauquans  - for a nine week summer program organized around weekly themes. History at Chautauqua is structural, certainly architectural: to enter the gates is to go back to the past, visually and communally. On brief inspection, one concludes that the average age of the participants stretches back more than two generations. This is a “senior world” (I include myself.), although there is no lack of families with children.

Well over a hundred years ago, Chautauqua began as a summer retreat for Sunday School teachers. It has transformed itself and its lake shore over the years. The major Christian denominations still have their residence houses, but one could almost be unaware of the thoroughly religious foundations of Chautauqua. There is, of course, morning worship services in the amphitheater, and the Department of Religion sponsors the major afternoon lectures,  an Inter-Faith program. No one at Chautauqua balks at religious sentiments; and the politics are left of center, socially progressive. As for ecumenism: there are regular Catholic services and a Jewish center, offering a wide range of religious and cultural programs.

The entry way to Chautauqua looks something like the toll both approach to a turnpike: busy, crowded with cars, and confusing: We were part of a tour and had to claim our entry passes amid a crush of people at the ticket office, but once we found ourselves inside the fenced acres, we drove hesitantly down very narrow, tree shaded streets, passing wood frame houses, Victorian in look and, in some cases, in origin. The road sloped down to the shore of the lake, to the grand Athenaeum Hotel, a Victorian wooden hostelry that recalls Dickens’  depictions of hotels in Martin Chezzulewit. The density of the housing, the lushness of the gardens that encroach on to the streets, and contrasts of shade and light on the frame houses work a transformation, as does the omphalos – the Amphitheater – spreading its bowl-like shape to focus on a stage platform, roofed above but open at its sides to the winds.

Chautauqua is a beautiful place, a green place, with stretches of lawn along the lake side, boats moored or making wakes up and down the ten mile length of the lake. There is even a paddle-wheel steamer that offers its own accompaniment to nostalgia in its hooting whistle.

I should explain that we came as a part of a Smithsonian Journeys tour – not by chance but as a straightforward means to negotiate a place about which we had heard so much from friends, but whose workings were unclear. A day there removed the blurred vision, and we were caught up, walking fast while trying to read the schedule of the daily paper.

No one can consider the programs of music, ballet, and opera, the many lectures conducted in a bewildering number of venues, the performances by students of dance, music and drama, and mistake Chautauqua for something moribund or tethered to a blinkered past. The predominantly white, affluent, and elderly (How many widows!) are uneasy in that very demographic. There is no lack of self-awareness. These are people of good will, retired into a world that challenges them, and made alert by the resources of the religious origins of the place. They face today – and ask to adapt to tomorrow.

I admit that at first I reserved judgment about the atmosphere and camaraderie, but there was too much to do to even entertain objections. The hotel culture of  nineteenth century Saratoga, featured promenades on wide porches in order to see and be seen. There is little of that, but among the purposeful stream of Chautauquans, I was struck by elegant, elderly women, caught in a coquettish pose, dressed in the fashion that was both unmistakably understated and elegant. Everywhere vestiges of faded beauty, purposeful eyeing of life. But then there were the handicapped who arrived on motorized scooters, banged along on walkers, or steadied themselves with sticks displaying all the effect of age and gravity, weighed down by themselves.  And it was just that movement, down the streets, along the lake from one venue to another that provided energy to the days. There was always something to do, something to leave out despite our determination to get there. A quick look at the Chautauqua website will indicate what I mean.

The theme of our week was Art and Politics (and Religion). We heard lectures a cartoonist from a major daily who showed us slides that underlines his approach to his art; the director of Selma spoke about her focus in making that film; a musicologist explored the links between Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and the Third Reich; two media consultants explained how they put together political advertisements; and an actor turned political activist talked about the motivation that caused him to devote his time to public service.

Afternoon lectures sponsored by the Department of Religion raised many issues of social justice and erroneous cultural stereotyping , but one in particular, presented by the Theater Department, asked all those crowded in the Hall of Philosophy to consider how Chautauqua itself responded in its arts programing to the politics of 2015. The discussion led to rather brutal self-examination, especially in the question and answer session.

We were a part of a group of twenty-five and had the advantage of meals in common, a series of lectures provided by the Simthsonian, and rooms at the extraordinary Athenaeum Hotel. The labyrinthine plan of the corridors of that building, however, did provoke a beleaguered acceptance of loss of spatial sense.

We came away feeling almost emotional giddiness, readdressing the lectures we had heard as we drove home. The tendency to think through “what we should have said if  . . .” was irresistible. My wife and I were very much the happier for a week spent in such a place. That perhaps is the caveat: Chautauqua’s  sense of the exceptional, the place apart. The unremitting landscape of rolling hills, and the canopy of trees from western New York to the East Coast, left a green page for thoughts to write on and a sort of disenchantment back to the everyday.


Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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