Lecturing at Chautauqua

by Clayton Hamilton

To render any real impression of the Chautauqua Summer Assembly, I must approach this many-mooded subject from a personal point of view. Others, more thoroughly informed in the arcana of the Institution, have written the history of its development from small beginnings to its present impressive magnitude, have analyzed the theory of its intentions, and have expounded its extraordinary influence over what may be called the middle-class culture of our present-day America. It would be beyond the scope of my equipment to add another solemn treatise to the extensive list already issued by the tireless Chautauqua Press. My own experience of Chautauqua was not that of a theoretical investigator, but that of a surprised and wondering participant. It was the experience of an alien thrust suddenly into the midst of a new but not unsympathetic world; and, if the reader will make allowance for the personal equation, some sense of the human significance of this summer seat of earnest recreation may be suggested by a mere record of my individual reactions.

I had heard of Chautauqua only vaguely, until, one sunny summer morning, I suddenly received a telegram inviting me to lecture at the Institution. I was a little disconcerted at the moment, because I was enjoying an amphibious existence in a bathing-suit, and was inclined to shudder at the thought of putting on a collar in July; but, after an hour or two, I managed to imagine that telegram as a Summons from the Great Unknown, and it was in a proper spirit of adventure that I flung together a few books, and climbed into the only available upper berth on a discomfortable train that rushed me westward.

In some sickly hour of the early morning, I was cast out at Westfield, on Lake Erie,—a town that looked like the back-yard of civilization, with weeds growing in it. Thence a trolley car, climbing over heightening hills that became progressively more beautiful, hauled me ultimately to the entrance of what the cynical conductor called “The Holy City.” A fence of insurmountable palings stretched away on either hand; and, at the little station, there were turn-stiles, through which pilgrims passed within. Most people pay money to obtain admittance; but I was met by a very affable young man from Dartmouth, whose business it was to welcome invited visitors, and by him I was steered officially through unopposing gates. I liked this young man for his cheerful clothes and smiling countenance; but I was rather appalled by the agglomeration of ram-shackle cottages through which we passed on our way to the hotel.

I say “the hotel,” for the Chautauqua Settlement contains but one such institution. It carries the classic name of Athenæum; but the first view of it occasioned in my sensitive constitution a sinking of the heart. The edifice dates from the early-gingerbread period of architecture. It culminates in a horrifying cupola, and is colored a discountenancing brown. The first glimpse of it reminded me of the poems of A.H. Clough, whose chief merit was to die and to offer thereby an occasion for a grave and twilit elegy by Matthew Arnold. Clough’s life-work was a continual asking of the question, “Life being unbearable, why should I not die?”—while echo, that commonplace and sapient commentator, mildly answered, “Why?”: and this was precisely the impression that I gathered from my initial vista of the Athenæum between trees.

On entering the hotel I was greeted over the desk (with what might be defined as a left-handed smile) by one of the leading students of the university with which I am associated as a teacher. He called out, “Front!” in the manner of an amateur who is amiably aping the professional, and assigned me to a scarcely comfortable room.

My first voluntary act in the Chautauqua Community was to take a swim. But the water was tepid, and brown, and tasteless, and unbuoyant; and I felt, rather oddly, as if I were swimming in a gigantic cup of tea. From this initial experience I proceeded, somewhat precipitately, to induce an analogy; and it seemed to me, at the time, as if I had forsaken the roar and tumble of the hoarse, tumultuous world, for the inland disassociated peace of an unaware and loitering backwater.

With hair still wet and still dishevelled, I was met by the Secretary of Instruction,—a man (as I discovered later) of wise and humorous perceptions. By him I was informed that, in an hour or so, I was to lecture, in the Hall of Philosophy, on (if I remember rightly) Edgar Allan Poe. I combed my hair, and tried to care for Poe, and made my way to the Hall of Philosophy. This turned out to be a Greek temple divested of its walls. An oaken roof, with pediments, was supported by Doric columns; and under the enlarged umbrella thus devised, about a thousand people were congregated to greet the new and unknown lecturer.

I honestly believe that that was the worst lecture I have ever imposed upon a suffering audience. I had lain awake all night, in an upper berth, on the hottest day of the year; I had found my swim in inland water unrefreshing; and, at the moment, I really cared no more for Edgar Allan Poe than I usually care for the sculptures of Bernini, the paintings of Bouguereau, or the base-ball playing of the St. Louis “Browns.” This feeling was, of course, unfair to Poe, who is (with all his emptiness of content) an admirable artist; but I was tired at the time. It pained me exceedingly to listen, for an hour, to my own dull and unilluminated lecture. And yet (and here is the pathetic point that touched me deeply) I perceived gradually that the audience was listening not only attentively but eagerly. Those people really wanted to hear whatever the lecturer should say: and I wandered back to the depressing hotel with bowed head, actuated by a new resolve to tell them something worthy on the morrow.

That afternoon and evening I strolled about the summer settlement of Chautauqua; and (in view of my subsequent shift of attitude) I do not mind confessing that this first aspect of the community depressed me to a perilous melancholy. I beheld a landscape that reminded me of Wordsworth’s Windermere, except that the lake was broader and the hills less high, deflowered and defamed by the huddled houses of the Chautauqua settlers. The lake was lovely; and, with this supreme adjective, I forbear from further effort at description. Upon the southern shore, a natural grove of noble and venerable trees had been invaded by a crowded horror of discomfortable tenements, thrown up by carpenters with a taste for machine-made architectural details, and colored a sickly green, an acid yellow, or an angry brown. The Chautauqua Settlement, which is surrounded by a fence of palings, covers only two or three square miles of territory; and, in the months of July and August, between fifteen and twenty thousand people are crowded into this constricted area. Hence a horror of unsightly dormitories, spawning unpredictable inhabitants upon the ambling, muddy lanes.

There have been, in the history of this Assembly, a few salutary fires,—as a result of which new buildings have been erected which are comparatively easy on the eyes. The Hall of Philosophy is really beautiful, and is nobly seated among memorable trees at the summit of a little hill. The Aula Christi tried to be beautiful, and failed; but at least the good intention is apparent. The Amphitheatre (which seats six or seven thousand auditors) is admirably adapted to its uses; and some of the more recent business buildings, like the Post Office, are inoffensive to the unexacting observer. A wooded peninsula, which is pleasantly laid out as a park, projects into the lake; and, at the point of this, has lately been erected a campanile which is admirable in both color and proportion. Indeed, when a fanfaronnade of sunset is blown wide behind it, you suffer a sudden tinge of homesickness for Venice or Ravenna. It is good enough for that. But beside it is a helter-skelter wooden edifice which reminds you of Surf Avenue at Coney Island. Indeed, the Settlement as a whole exhibits still an overwhelmment of the unæsthetic, and appalls the eye of the new-comer from a more considerative world.

On the way back from the lovely campanile to the hotel, I stumbled over a scattering of artificial hillocks surrounding two mud-puddles connected by a gutter. This monstrosity turned out to be a relief-map of Palestine. Little children, with uncultivated voices, shouted at each other as they lightly leaped from Jerusalem to Jericho; and waste-paper soaked itself to dingy brown in the insanitary Sea of Galilee.—Then I encountered a wooden edifice with castellated towers and machicolated battlements, which called itself (with a large label) the Men’s Club; and from this I fled, with almost a sense of relief, to the hotel itself, now sprawling low and dark beneath its Boston-brown-bread cupola.

Thus my first impression of Chautauqua was one of melancholy and resentment. But, in the subsequent few days, this emotion was altered to one of impressible satiric mirth; and, subsequently still, it was changed again to an emotion of wondering and humble admiration. I had been assured at the outset, by one who had already tried it, that, if I stayed long enough, I should end up by liking Chautauqua; and this is precisely what happened to me before a week was out.

But meanwhile I laughed very hard for three days. The thing that made me laugh most was the unexpected experience of enduring the discomfiture of fame. Chautauqua is a constricted community; and any one who lectures there becomes, by that very fact, a famous person in this little backwater of the world, until he is supplanted (for fame is as fickle as a ballet-dancer) by the next new-comer to the platform. The Chautauqua Press publishes a daily paper, a weekly review, a monthly magazine and a quarterly; and these publications report your lectures, tell the story of your life, comment upon your views of this and that, advertise your books, and print your picture. Everybody knows you by sight, and stops you in the street to ask you questions. Thus, on your way to the Post Office, you are intercepted by some kindly soul who says: “I am Miss Terwilliger, from Montgomery, Alabama; and do you think that Bernard Shaw is really an immoral writer?” or, “I am Mrs. Winterbottom, of Muncie, Indiana; and where do you think I had better send my boy to school? He is rather a backward boy for his age—he was ten last April—but I really think that if, etc.”

Then, when you return to the hotel, you observe that everybody is rocking vigorously on the veranda, and reading one of your books. This pleases you a little; for, though an actor may look his audience in the eyes, an author is seldom privileged to see his readers face to face. Indeed, he often wonders if anybody ever reads his writings, because he knows that his best friends never do. But very soon this tender sentiment is disrupted. There comes a sudden resurrection of the rocking-chair brigade, a rush of readers with uplifted fountain-pens, and a general request for the author’s autograph upon the flyleaf of his volume. All of this is rather flattering; but afterward these gracious and well-meaning people begin to comment on your lectures, and tell you that you have made them see a great light. And then you find yourself embarrassed.

It is rather embarrassing to be embarrassed.

One enthusiastic lady, having told me her name and her address, assaulted me with the following commentary:—“I heard you lecture on Stevenson the other day; and ever since then I have been thinking how very much like Stevenson you are. And today I heard you lecture on Walt Whitman: and all afternoon I have been thinking how very much like Whitman you are. And that is rather puzzling—isn’t it?—because Stevenson and Whitman weren’t at all like each other,—were they?”

I smiled, and told the lady the simple truth; but I do not think she understood me. “Ah, madam,” I said, “wait until you hear me lecture about Hawthorne….”

For (and now I am freely giving the whole game away) the secret of the art of lecturing is merely this:—on your way to the rostrum you contrive to fling yourself into complete sympathy with the man you are to talk about, so that, when you come to speak, you will give utterance to his message, in terms that are suggestive of his style. You must guard yourself from ever attempting to talk about anybody whom you have not (at some time or other) loved; and, at the moment, you should, for sheer affection, abandon your own personality in favor of his, so that you may become, as nearly as possible, the person whom it is your business to represent. Naturally, if you have any ear at all, your sentences will tend to fall into the rhythm of his style; and if you have any temperament (whatever that may be) your imagined mood will diffuse an ineluctable aroma of the author’s personality.

This at least, is my own theory of lecturing; and, in the instance of my talk on Hawthorne, I seem to have carried it out successfully in practice. I must have attained a tone of sombre gray, and seemed for the moment a meditative Puritan under a shadowy and steepled hat; for, at the close of the lecture, a silvery-haired and sweet-faced woman asked me if I wouldn’t be so kind as to lead the devotional service in the Baptist House that evening. I found myself abashed. But a previous engagement saved me; and I was able to retire, not without honor, though with some discomfiture.

This previous engagement was a steamboat ride upon the lake. When you want to give a sure-enough party at Chautauqua, you charter a steamboat and escape from the enclosure, having seduced a sufficient number of other people to come along and sing. On this particular evening, the party consisted of the Chautauqua School of Expression,—a bevy of about thirty young women who were having their speaking voices cultivated by an admired friend of mine who is one of the best readers in America; and they sang with real spirit, so soon as we had churned our way beyond remembrance of (I mean no disrespect) the Baptist House. But this boat-ride had a curious effect on the four or five male members of the party. We touched at a barbarous and outrageous settlement, named (if I remember rightly) Bemus Point; and hardly had the boat been docked before there ensued a hundred-yard dash for a pair of swinging doors behind which dazzled lights splashed gaudily on soapy mirrors. I did not really desire a drink at the time; but I took two, and the other men did likewise. I understood at once (for I must always philosophize a little) why excessive drinking is induced in prohibition states. Tell me that I may not laugh, and I wish at once to laugh my head off,—though I am at heart a holy person who loves Keats. This incongruous emotion must have been felt, under this or that influence of external inhibition, by everyone who is alive enough to like swimming, and Dante, and Weber and Fields, and Filipino Lippi, and the view of the valley underneath the sacred stones of Delphi.

Within the enclosure of Chautauqua one does not drink at all; and I infer that this regulation is well-advised. I base this inference upon my gradual discovery that all the regulations of this well-conducted Institution have been fashioned sanely to contribute to the greatest good of the greatest number. That is my final, critical opinion. But how we did dash for the swinging doors at Bemus Point!—we four or five simple-natured human beings who were not, in any considerable sense, drinking men at all.

Then the congregated School of Expression tripped ashore with nimble ankles; and there ensued a general dance at a pavilion where a tired boy maltreated a more tired piano, and one paid a dime before, or after, dancing. One does not dance at Chautauqua, even on moon-silvery summer evenings:—and again the regulation is right, because the serious-minded members of the community must have time to read the books of those who lecture there.

And this brings me to a consideration of the Chautauqua Sunday. On this day the gates are closed, and neither ingress nor egress is permitted. Once more I must admit that the regulation has been sensibly devised. If admittance were allowed on Sunday, the grounds would be overrun by picnickers from Buffalo, who would cast the shells of hard-boiled eggs into the inviting Sea of Galilee; and unless the officers are willing to let anybody in, they can devise no practicable way of letting anybody out. Besides, the people who are in already like to rest and meditate. But alas! (and at this point I think that I begin to disapprove) the row-boats and canoes are tied up at the dock, the tennis-courts are emptied, and the simple exercise of swimming is forbidden. This desuetude of natural and smiling recreation on a day intended for surcease of labor struck me (for I am in part an ancient Greek, in part a mediæval Florentine) as strangely irreligious. All day the organ rumbles in the Amphitheatre (and of this I approved, because I love the way in which an organ shakes you into sanctity), and many meetings are held in various sectarian houses, the mood of which is doubtless reverent—though all the while the rippling water beckons to the high and dry canoes, and a gathering of many-tinted clouds is summoned in the windy west to tingle with Olympian laughter and Universal song. How much more wisely (if I may talk in Greek terms for the moment) the gods take Sunday, than their followers on this forgetful earth!

But we must change the mood if I am to speak again of what amused me in the pagan days of my initiation at Chautauqua. Life, for instance, at the ginger-bread hotel amused me oddly. To one who lives in a metropolis throughout the working months, the map of eating at Chautauqua seems incongruous. Dinner is served in the middle of the day, at an hour when one is hardly encouraged to the thought of luncheon; and at six P.M. a sort of breakfast is set forth, which is denominated Supper. This Supper consists of fruit, followed by buckwheat cakes, followed by meat or eggs; and to eat one’s way through it induces a curious sense of standing on one’s head. After two days I discovered a remedy for this undesired dizziness. I turned the menu upside down, and ordered a meal in the reverse order. The Supper itself was a success; but the waitress (who, in the winter, teaches school in Texas) disapproved of what she deemed my frivolous proceeding. Her eyes took on an inward look beneath the pedagogical eye-glasses; and there was a distinct furrowing of her forehead. Thereafter I did not dare to overturn the menu, but ate my way heroically backward. After all, our prandial prejudices are merely the result of custom. There is no real reason why stewed prunes should not be eaten at three A.M.

But this philosophical reflection reminds me that there is no such hour at Chautauqua. At ten P.M. a carol of sweet chimes is rung from the Italian campanile; and at that hour all good Chautauquans go to bed. If you are by profession (let us say) a writer, and are accustomed to be alive at midnight, you will find the witching hours sad. Vainly you will seek companionship, and will be reduced at last to reading the base-ball reports in the newspapers of Cleveland, Ohio.

At the Athenæum you are passed about, from meal to meal, like a one-card draw at poker. The hotel is haunted by Old Chautauquans, who vie with each other to receive you with traditional cordiality. The head-waitress steers you for luncheon (I mean Dinner) to one table, for Supper to another, and so on around the room from day to day. The process reminds you a little of the procedure at a progressive euchre party. At each meal you meet a new company of Old Chautauquans, and are expected to converse: but many (indeed most) of these people are humanly refreshing, and the experience is not so wearing as it sounds.

But you must not imagine from all that I have said that the life of the lecturer at Chautauqua is merely frivolous. Not at all. You get up very early, and proceed to Higgins Hall, a pleasant little edifice (named after the late Governor of New York State) set agreeably amid trees upon a rising knoll of verdure; and there you converse for a time about the Drama, and for another time about the Novel. In each of these two courses there were, perhaps, seventy or eighty students,—male and female, elderly and young. I found them much more eager than the classes I had been accustomed to in college, and at least as well prepared. They came from anywhere, and from any previous condition of servitude to the general cause of learning; but I found them apt, and interested, and alive.

Now and then it appeared that their sense of humor was a little less fantastic than my own; but I liked them very much, because they were so earnest and simple and human and (what is Whitman’s adjective?) adhesive.

And now I come to the point that converted me finally to Chautauqua. I found myself, after a few days, liking the people very much. In the afternoons I talked in the Doric Temple about this man or that,—selected from my company of well-beloved friends among “the famous nations of the dead”; and the people came in hundreds and listened reverently—not, I am very glad to know, because of any trick I have of setting words together, but because of Stevenson and Whitman and the others, and what they meant by living steadfast lives amid the hurly-burly of this roaring world, and steering heroically by their stars. Some elderly matrons among the listeners brought their knitting with them and toiled with busy hands throughout the lecture; but they listened none the less attentively, and reduced me to a mood of humble wonderment.

For I have often wondered (and this is, perhaps, the most intimate of my confessions) how anybody can endure a lecture,—even a good lecture, for I am not thinking merely of my own. It is a passive exercise of which I am myself incapable. I, for one, have always found it very irksome—as Carlyle has phrased the experience—“to sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into.” I always want to talk back, or rise and remark “But, on the other hand…”; and, before long, I find myself spiritually itching. This is, possibly, a reason why I prefer canoeing to listening to sermons. Yet these admirable Chautauquans submit themselves to this experience hour after hour, because they earnestly desire to discover some glimmering of “the best that has been known and thought in the world.”

These fifteen or twenty thousand people have assembled for the pursuit of culture—a pursuit which the Hellenic-minded Matthew Arnold designated as the noblest in this life. But from this fact (and here the antithetic formula asserts itself) we must deduce an inference that they feel themselves to be uncultured. In this inference I found a taste of the pathetic. I discovered that many of the colonists at Chautauqua were men and women well along in life who had had no opportunities for early education. Their children, rising through the generations, had returned from the state universities of Texas or Ohio or Mississippi, talking of Browning, and the binominal theorem, and the survival of the fittest, and the grandeur and decadence of the Romans, and the entassus of Ionic columns, and the doctrine of laissez faire; and now their elders had set out to endeavor to catch up with them. This discovery touched me with both reverence and pathos. An attempt at what may be termed, in the technical jargon of base-ball, a “delayed steal” of culture, seemed to me little likely to succeed. Culture, like wisdom, cannot be acquired: it cannot be passed, like a dollar bill, from one who has it to one who has it not. It must be absorbed, early in life, through birth or breeding, or be gathered undeliberately through experience. A child of five with a French governess will ask for his mug of milk with an easier Gallic grace than a man of eighty who has puzzled out the pronunciation from a text-book. There is, apparently, no remedy for this. Love the Faerie Queene at twelve, or you will never really love it at seventy: or so, at least, it seems to me. And yet the desire to learn, in gray-haired men and women who in their youth were battling hard for a mere continuance of life itself, and founding homesteads in a book-less wilderness, moved me to a quick exhilaration.

Most of the people at Chautauqua come either from the south or from the middle west. They pronounce the English language either without any r at all, or with such excessive emphasis upon the r as to make up for the deficiency of their fellow-seekers. In other words, these people are really American, as opposed to cosmopolitan; and to live among them is—for a world-wandering adventurer—to learn a lesson in Americanism. Mr. Roosevelt once stated that Chautauqua is the most American institution in America; and this statement—like many others of his inspired platitudes—begins to seem meaningful upon reflection.

At one time or another I have drifted to many different corners of the world; but my residence at Chautauqua was my only experience of a democracy. In this community there are no special privileges. If the President of the Institution had wished to hear me lecture (he never did, in fact—though we used to play tennis together, at which game he proved himself easily the better man) he would have been required to come early and take his chance at getting a front seat; and once, when I ventured to attend a lecture by one of my colleagues, I found myself seated beside that very waitress in the Athenæum who had disapproved of my method of ordering a meal. All the exercises are open equally to anybody—first come, first served—and the boy who blacks your boots may turn out to be a Sophomore at Oberlin. Teachers in Texas high-schools sweep the floors or shave you, and the raucous newsboy is earning his way toward the University of Illinois. All this is a little bewildering at first; but in a day or two you grow to like it.

This free-for-all spirit that permeates Chautauqua reminds me to speak of the economic conduct of the Institution. The only charge—except in the case of certain special courses—is for admission to the grounds. The visitor pays fifty cents for a franchise of one day, and more for periods of greater length, until the ultimate charge of seven dollars and fifty cents for a season ticket is attained. On leaving the grounds, he has to show his ticket; and if it has expired he is taxed according to the term of his delinquent lingering. Once free of the grounds, he may avail himself of any of the privileges of the Assembly. Lectures, on an infinite variety of subjects, are delivered hour after hour; and a bulletin of these successive lectures is posted publicly and printed in the daily paper. Every evening an entertainment of some sort is given in the Amphitheatre, and this is eagerly attended by swarming thousands. The Institution owns all the land within the bounding palisades. Private cottages may be erected by individual builders on lots leased for ninety-nine years; but the Institution owns and operates the only hotel, and exercises an absolute empery over the issuance of franchises to necessary tradesmen. The revenue of the corporation is therefore rich; but all of it is expended in importing the best lecturers that may be obtained, and in furthering the general good of the general assembly. The entire system suggests the theoretic observation that an absolute democracy can be instituted and maintained only by an absolute monarchy. If all the people are to be free and equal, the government must have absolute control of all the revenue. Here is, perhaps, a principle for our presidential candidates to think about.

But I do not wish to terminate this summer conversation on a serious note; and I must revert, in closing, to some of the recreations at Chautauqua. The first of these is tea. Every afternoon, from four to five o’clock, the visitor lightly flits from tea to tea,—making his excuses to one hostess in order to dash onward to another. This is rather hard upon the health, because it requires the deglutition of innumerable potions. I have always maintained that tea is an admirable entity if it be considered merely as a time of day, but that it is insidious if it be considered as a beverage. At Chautauqua, tea is not only an hour but a drink; and (though I am a sympathetic soul) I can only say that those who like it like it. For my part, I preferred the concoction sold at rustic soda-fountains, which is known locally as a “Chautauqua highball,”—a ribald term devised by college men who make up the by-no-means-despicable ball-team. This beverage is compounded out of unfermented grape-juice and foaming fizz-water; and, if it be taken absent-mindedly, seems to taste like something.

But the standard recreation at Chautauqua is the habit of impromptu eating in the open air. Every one invites you to go upon a picnic. You take a steamer to some point upon the lake, or take a trolley to a wild and deep ravine known by the somewhat unpoetic name of the Hog’s Back; and then everybody sits around and eats sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, and considers the occasion a debauch. This formality resembles great good fun,—especially as there are girls who laugh, and play, and threaten to disconcert you on the morrow when you solemnly arise to lecture on the Religion of Emerson. But picnic-baskets out of doors are rather hard on the digestion.

Perhaps I should record also, as a curious experience, that I was required to appear as one of the guests of honor at a large reception. This meant that I had to stand in line, with certain other marionettes, and shake hands with an apparently endless procession of people who were themselves as bored as were the guests of honor. I determined then and there that I should never run for President,—not even in response to an irresistible appeal from the populace. I had never suspected before that there could be so many hands without the touch of nature in them. I shook hands mechanically, chatting all the while with a humorous and human woman who stood next to me in the line of the attacked—until suddenly I felt the sensitive and tender grasp of a sure-enough hand, reminding me of friends and one or two women it has been a holiness to know. My attention was attracted by the thrill. I turned swiftly—and I looked upon a little bent old woman who was blind. She had a voice, too, for she spoke to me … and,—well, I was very glad that I went to that reception.

And many other matters I remember fondly,—a certain lonely hill at sunset, whence you looked over wide water to distant dream-enchanted shores; the urbanity and humor of the wise directors of the Institution; the manner of many young students who discerned an unadmitted sanctity beneath the smiling conversations of those summer hours; my own last lecture, on “The Importance of Enjoying Life”; the people who walked with me to the station and whom I was sorry to leave; and the oddly-minded student behind the desk of the hotel; and an old man from Kentucky who cared about Walt Whitman after I had talked about his ministrations in the army hospitals; and the trees, and the reverberating organ, and, beneath a benison of midnight peace, the hushed moon-silvery surface of the lake. It is, indeed, a memorable experience to have lectured at Chautauqua.