By DOUGLAS L. WILSON
Chautauqua: Old and New
Chautauqua. The name of a lake in western New York state, for many years before and after the turn of the century it was a word to conjure with in the national vocabulary. For millions of Americans it came to represent a beguiling combination of summer-time pleasures and cultural activity. The Chautauqua's broad appeal was downright remarkable, for while ordinary Americans 100 years ago may have been interested in the acquisition of culture, more often than not they regarded it as the moral equivalent of taking castor oil — not especially pleasant, but good for you. The magic of the Chautauqua was in the way it helped the medicine go down.
The distinctive format of the Chautauqua movement drew its inspiration from two popular 19th century institutions, the lecture lyceum and the religious camp meeting. Its appeal to the American popular imagination lay in the Chautauqua's special blend of entertainment and education, of socializing and seriousness, of leisure and self-improvement. Like the religious camp meeting, the Chautauqua was a family affair, held out of doors and in a natural, non-urban setting; like the lyceum, its greatest attractions were lecturers of every persuasion, all presenting serious matter in a palatable and often entertaining form. Within a very few years of its inception in the 1870s, the experiment at Lake Chautauqua was being repeated nationwide, and circuits were formed for the orderly scheduling and sharing of talent. One of the most successful of all turn-of-the-century Chautauquas was located in the heart of the Illinois Lincoln country near Petersburg and was known as the Old Salem Chautauqua.
Named for its proximity to the village where Abraham Lincoln lived from 1831 to 1837, the Old Salem Chautauqua on the banks of the Sangamon River drew heavily from central Illinois, but it was sufficiently well-run and enticingly located to become a prime summertime family attraction for the entire Midwest. According to its historians, (Catherine Miller and Raymond Montgomery (A Chautauqua To Remember: The Story of Old Salem, 1987), the Old Salem Chautauqua in its prime was "thought to be the largest Chautauqua West of the Allegheny Mountains." All the great Chautauqua figures appeared on the stage of the auditorium at Old Salem — from William Randolph Hearst and Booker T. Washington to the most acclaimed speaker of his day, William Jennings Bryan, who had graduated from nearby Illinois College in Jacksonville. Along with Bible lessons and classes in all manner of subjects, there was a constant procession of talented
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preachers, teachers, professors and scientists purveying information on every imaginable topic. In addition, the campers and cottagers who gathered by the thousands were regularly treated to the kind of entertaining cultural fare that was in short supply in the towns and cities of the region, such as classical music, opera and Shakespearian plays. Chautauqua came to be a greatly anticipated feature of family life, for the atmosphere of the campground was festive and inviting, and opportunities abounded for socializing and fun.
The Chautauqua movement eventually yielded to competition from the movies and the radio, as well as to the greatly enhanced mobility afforded the family of ordinary means by the automobile. The Old Salem Chautauqua lasted longer than most, finally meeting its demise in 1942 because of the privations of World War II. But the spirit of Chautauqua — the impulse to combine family summer outings with cultural activity — is still very much alive and in evidence in downstate Illinois.
A prime instance of thriving contemporary Chautauqua can be sampled only a few miles from the site of the Old Salem Chautauqua at Lincoln's New Salem State Park. Though the converging railroads that brought trainloads of visitors to Petersburg and old Salem no longer run, every summer tens of thousands of Americans make the pilgrimage by automobile to a reconstruction of historic New Salem, the obscure and short-lived log village that was the proving ground of Abraham Lincoln's early life. Arriving here at the age of 22, Lincoln struggled to make a living by an assortment of jobs and to repair the deficiencies in his education. Simply to tour the re-
stored village is itself a lesson in American history, presenting, as it does, in dramatic and visual terms the physical conditions of pioneer life. Incorporating an excellent modern campground, Lincoln's new Salem State Park has proved a popular attraction for families in search of an engaging outdoor experience for more than a half century.
But for the last 15 years, New Salem has offered its summer visitors an added attraction in the way of entertainment and cultural enrichment that is strongly reminiscent of the old-time Chautauqua. Described in a park brochure as "a summer stock theatrical troupe featuring live, historically based performances," The Great American People Show (GAPS) performs nightly except on Mondays, from a stage in Kelso Hollow, a natural amphitheater that adjoins the reconstructed village. Its principal production, "Your Obedient Servant, A. Lincoln," was written expressly for this setting by a professor of theater at the University of Illinois, John Ahart, and is performed by a company of actors under his direction. The show aims at bringing Abraham Lincoln and his world to life, not so much by means of realistic sets and costumes as by spirited acting and dedication to an educational and inspirational purpose. GAPS has been consistently popular with New Salem visitors and regional audiences, and the success of its educational mission has been well recognized. It regularly receives support from the Illinois State Humanities Council, and in a speech honoring the work of such councils, GAPS was singled out by U.S. Sen. Paul Simon as a "paradigmatic project" that not only teaches by entertaining but inspires its audiences to learn.
Less than 100 miles away from New Salem at Bloomington is another prime example of the new Chautauqua. This attractive central Illinois town was on the judicial circuit that Abraham Lincoln followed while prac-
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tiring law. His fellow lawyers remembered that one of Lincoln's favorite diversions on the circuit was reading Shakespeare, whose work he nearly always carried with him. That familiarity with Shakespeare was, for Lincoln, no mere cultural affectation, and it became evident in the way he turned to Shakespeare's tragedies in the darkest hours of the Civil War. Lincoln's affinity for Shakespeare has been mirrored in our own time by the rising popularity of Shakespearian theater, and for more than a dozen summers Bloomington has hosted the lively and successful Illinois Shakespeare Festival.
Like the Great American People Show, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival was founded by a professor of theater, Cal Pritner of Illinois State University in Bloomington, who served as its artistic director until his retirement in 1990. And like GAPS, it has been fostered and carried forward not simply as a seasonal activity but as something of a cause, both educational and artistic. Summer Shakespeare festivals, though not common, are by no means novel, and the Bloomington festival has had viable models to follow. But its great and ever-present challenge is the one faced by the Chautauqua movement, namely, finding a way to bring the bard to a popular and diverse audience.
The first element in the original Chautauqua equation was an attractive and congenial setting, and this appears to be a key to the success of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. First recognized by Pritner as an ideal location for an outdoor artistic enterprise, the setting for the festival is the beautifully landscaped grounds of Ewing Manor, the imposing Tudor-style "seat" of a local philanthropic family. The chance to explore these interesting grounds and to picnic on the lawn before the show has definitely been part of the allure for the audiences since the festival's inception in 1978. The festival takes care to reinforce and enrich its productions with such extras as costumed madrigal singers, lectures on the plays prior to performance and related exhibits in the Ewing Manor museum.
A final example of contemporary Chautauqua in down-state Illinois is to be found at Mount Vernon, which hosts a unique and astonishingly ambitious World Affairs Forum each autumn. A persistent idea of the original Chautauqua movement was to increase the ordinary American's familiarity with other countries and cultures, and the people of Mount Vernon have taken up precisely this task on a communitywide basis. Begun in 1981 in connection with the honoring of a Mount Vernon native, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the United States representative to the U.N. from 1981 to 1985, the World Affairs Forum focuses on a different country every year: for example, Australia in 1988, Greece in 1989 and Nigeria in 1990. Its aim is to promote activities that will help familiarize the townspeople and visitors with various aspects of the focal country and to involve as much of the community as possible, from service clubs and local schools to senior citizens' centers. For six weeks in early fall this year. Mount Vernon will become the site of almost daily lectures, concerts and other programs designed to promote greater understanding of the peoples and cultures of Brazil.
. . . the spirit of Chautauqua — the impulse to combine family summer outings with cultural activity . . .
The original Chautauqua functioned by drawing large numbers of people to a common outdoor site, but its modern counterpart is conspicuously decentralized and may appear almost anywhere. Downstate Illinois is, in fact, rich in Chautauqua-type attractions which offer opportunities for families to mix travel, outdoor activities and cultural discovery. Besides New Salem, Bloomington and Mount Vernon, there is the restored Mormon city at Nauvoo, where the prophet Joseph Smith resided in the 1840s; or Bishop Hill, the site of the Utopian experiment a few years later led by the Swedish charismatic, Erik Jansson; or the recently established Heritage America Festival at Cahokia, featuring arts, crafts and activities of the Mississippian and other Native American cultures (scheduled for September 27-29 in 1991). The list is surprisingly long and still growing. Here in the land of Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson's cherished ideal of an enlightened citizenry annually reasserts itself and finds new expression in an old form — Chautauqua.
Douglas L. Wilson, professor of English at Knox College, received his B.A. at Doane College and his Ph.D at the University of Pennsylvania. Director of the Seymour Library at Knox College since 1972, he recently published an essay on Jefferson and Lincoln in Atlantic Monthly and delivered a paper at the 1991 Lincoln Symposium in Springfield.
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