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Subculture at Work in Chautauqua

August 7, 1999

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (AP) _ They were looking for a ride to nowhere, some good scenery, a modest adventure. They did not expect to find Shangri-La.

Richard and Lorene Bowles left their home in Cleveland 11 years ago and drove northeast on Route 90, across the corner of Pennsylvania and into New York. They saw a sign for Chautauqua, and found it on the map.

A lake. This should be nice.

And so they paid their fee and went through the gate and fell in love _ deeply, completely, forever.

Yes, there was a lake at the edge of these leafy 225 acres. But there was also ballet and music and theater and opera. There were lectures on religion, philosophy and the great issues of the day. There were classes on personal finance, astronomy, jazz.

And scurrying amid Victorian houses, Richard and Lorene found more than 7,000 kindred spirits who would rather ponder ``Millennialism and Western Culture″ than don mouse ears and visit Tomorrowland.

They’ve been back every summer since.

``I always say each year, before we come, `I’m going to go up and do nothing’,″ says Richard. ``But I end up running to every lecture. You don’t want to miss anything.″

For nine weeks each summer, more than 140,000 people come to the Chautauqua Institution. Among them are neurosurgeons, lawyers and ministers, but also tool-and-die makers and homemakers, like the Bowles.

This is not the America that is queuing up to see ``American Pie,″ or perusing WWF Magazine, or organizing its days around ``Jerry Springer.″

This America is filling museums and traipsing to Elderhostels. It is following Oprah Winfrey’s lead and reading and discussing books like Toni Morrison’s ``Beloved″ and Jacquelyn Mitchard’s ``The Deep End of the Ocean.″ It is logging onto the Cafe Utne site on the World Wide Web to discuss ``What is forgiveness?″

This America is not the majority. But it was a major force in the 19th century, and today it is growing again.

``It’s almost like an undercurrent or a subculture,″ says Donald Biffen, a dentist from Stroudsburg, Pa., after hearing the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra perform Chopin’s ``Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor.″

``It used to be the main culture but it’s been submerged by television. People are tired of the glossing over of some things, of being spoon-fed.″

Biffen takes part in Civil War reenactments _ not because he likes the guns and uniforms, but because ``I’m always learning something new, something more than the Hollywood version.″

Says Eric Utne, founder of the eponymous magazine, salons and Web site: ``People crave interaction and connection around ideas. Increasingly, people find they want to get together.″

That is why, after 125 years, Chautauqua still thrives.

That, and the sheer charm of the place. At Chautauqua, each morning begins at 8 a.m. with a carillon playing ``Morning has Broken.″ Newsboys walk down carless streets, chanting, ``Chay-TAU-qua DAI-ly, 40 CENTS!″ The grand hotel, the Athenaeum, offers everyone a second dessert_ to make up for the fact that no liquor is served, here or elsewhere on the grounds.

(Of course, during the season, alcohol sales in nearby Mayville increase 100 percent.)

Chautauqua is ``wholesome ... a less tense, less self-consumed, slightly more cerebral world ...,″ says historian David McCullough. ``It has the virtues of much that once was commonplace in America.″

It was commonplace in the 19th century, during what was known as the lyceum movement, when hundreds of towns large and small set up lecture halls. Shopkeepers would put away their aprons, farmers would hitch up their rigs, and they would gather to listen.

``If you were going to be an independent person, you not only needed an education, you had a right to education,″ says Jeffrey Simpson, author of ``Chautauqua: An American Utopia.″

The lyceum movement died with the Civil War. And then two men _ John H. Vincent, later bishop of what was then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Lewis Miller, an Ohio industrialist _ hit upon the idea of an annual assembly to train Sunday school teachers.

They settled on Lake Chautauqua in western New York, site of a camp meeting _ a euphoric, ecstatic Christian gathering. But Vincent and Miller wanted education, with time for recreation.

Summer vacation was a new thing in the 19th century, McCullough notes. But it was ``not just to be frittered away with fun and games. One could improve one’s education. One could enlarge one’s sense of the world.″

``The country was built on hard work,″ he says, and Chautauqua was a place where hard-working Americans could vacation without guilt.

The accommodations were rustic _ tents, some cottages and an open shed that served as a hotel _ but that was no impediment: Between 10,000 and 15,000 people attended the first two-week session, in 1874.

``There was,″ Vincent would say, ``a hunger of mind abroad in the land.″

The next year, even more people came, President Ulysses S. Grant among them. The year after, the Sunday School Assembly bought the grounds.

Chautauqua never lost its religious soul, but its classes and lectures soon became more secular. People flocked to learn Latin and German, to hear lectures on the constellations, electricity and that controversial theory, evolution.

Chautauqua, Theodore Roosevelt said, was ``typically American, in that it is typical of America at its best.″

Not everyone loved the place; to some, it was _ and is _ middlebrow and bland. Psychologist William James, after a week’s stay, lamented ``this unspeakable Chautauqua.″

``This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring ... this atrocious harmlessness of all things, I cannot abide with them,″ he wrote.

He was in the minority. Towns created their own Chautauquas; by 1904, there were nearly 300. After 1907, traveling Chautauquas blossomed, setting up tents and offering lectures and entertainment.

Then there was the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle _ the CLSC, established in 1878, ancestor of all of today’s book clubs. More than 300,000 people had joined by the 1920s.

Members, all across the country, were asked to read 12 books over four years _ history, philosophy, biography, science, poetry and more.

``It just opened new worlds for people,″ says Simpson. He quotes a letter from one woman who had fallen behind in her membership duties:

``I live on a farm, and my husband has no help except what I give him. All of the time I am not doing housework, I am obliged to drive the horse at the horsepower. ... I have done my reading while driving the horse for the past two months, but I cannot write while driving.″

The Circle survives. Richard and Lorene Bowles have read all 12 books, and are now in the process of reading 14 more books so they can advance to the next level, The Guild of the Seven Seals.

(``Yes, we have a talent for names,″ one Chautauquan says wryly.)

Every year, the Bowles come back for CLSC Recognition Day, when graduates are feted in the time-honored fashion: They march through a golden gate to the Parthenon-like Hall of Philosophy, children showering flower petals in their path.

The Bowles are 57, at the low end of the 55-to-75 age group that is Chautauqua’s largest segment. Chautauqua once was known as ``a place where old ladies took their mothers,″ says Jeffrey Simpson, and humorist Mark Russell once referred to the Athenaeum Hotel as ``God’s waiting room.″

But a few years ago, the Athenaeum’s dining room got its first high chairs. These days, you see a lot of young families at Chautauqua.

Shelly Burns, 33, has been coming here since she was a child, and now she brings her 2-year-old twins, Emily and Drew.

``It’s fun to expose them to a few minutes of the concerts″ in the big, open-air Amphitheater, she says.

Chautauqua still draws well-known speakers and performers, and they still mix and chat with the public. Winnie Lewellen runs the Wensley House, where these guests often stay, and she is eager to page through a guestbook that includes Buster Crabbe and Stephen Jay Gould, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Victor Borge.

``Isaac Stern pinched my fanny!″ she exclaims, laughing uproariously.

But Chautauqua is no longer the national podium it was in the late 19th century, or in 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous ``I Hate War″ speech in the Amphitheater.

Daniel Bratton wants to regain that status. But Chautauqua’s president knows that it must be a different kind of podium in the 21st century.

He talks about a conference next February on ``God at 2000,″ which will be uplinked and downlinked to 500 schools and other centers. He looks forward to collaborations on radio and television and the Internet.

Next March, Chautauqua will stage a four-day program on family at the Disney Institute in Florida, an adult-education complex which was itself inspired by Chautauqua.

The Disney Institute offers classes in cooking and gardening, but it also offers job-related training. That is where the great growth in adult education has come, says James H. Ryan, vice president for outreach and cooperative extension at Penn State University.

``The Chautauqua movement was for a small, select, elite group,″ he says. ``What we have done now is taken that to the public. If you can make their lives better _ if you can help them put food on the table _ then they can take the time to enjoy the arts and great books.″

Bratton does not shy away from the e-word. ``Yup, we’re elitist, in the sense of intellectual curiosity and artistic achievement,″ he says.

The Chautauquans are comfortable with their elitism. They love ideas and art, and they adore this place.

``The Chautauqua people are real believers,″ says David McCullough. ``Their love for the place is quite lovable.″

Every Sunday, Ross Mackenzie _ director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion _ leads services in the Amphitheater. At one point, he asks all newcomers to Chautauqua to stand up; he welcomes them, and proclaims them Chautauquans for life. They will be back, he says. Everyone comes back.

``In the beginning, there was the word,″ Mackenzie would later say. ``And the word was Chautauqua.″

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