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The Chautauqua Moment

The Chautauqua Moment: Protestants, Progressives, and the Culture of Modern Liberalism, 1874-1920

Andrew C. Rieser
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  • Book Info
    The Chautauqua Moment
    Book Description:

    This book traces the rise and decline of what Theodore Roosevelt once called the "most American thing in America." The Chautauqua movement began in 1874 on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in western New York. More than a college or a summer resort or a religious assembly, it was a composite of all of these -- completely derivative yet brilliantly innovative. For five decades, Chautauqua dominated adult education and reached millions with its summer assemblies, reading clubs, and traveling circuits.

    Scholars have long struggled to make sense of Chautauqua's pervasive yet disorganized presence in American life. In this critical study, Andrew Rieser weaves the threads of Chautauqua into a single story and places it at the vital center of fin de siècle cultural and political history. Famous for its commitment to democracy, women's rights, and social justice, Chautauqua was nonetheless blind to issues of class and race. How could something that trumpeted democracy be so undemocratic in practice? The answer, Rieser argues, lies in the historical experience of the white, Protestant middle classes, who struggled to reconcile their parochial interests with radically new ideas about social progress and the state. The Chautauqua Moment brings color to a colorless demographic and spins a fascinating tale of modern liberalism's ambivalent but enduring cultural legacy.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50113-2
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction: Chautauqua’s Liberal Creed
    (pp. 1-14)

    The story of my initial involvement with Chautauqua rarely fails to disappoint. I have no childhood or adolescent tales to spin, no early romance to relate, and no familial connection to help the reader make sense of my personal stake in the subject. Chautauqua’s attraction to me was scholarly in the truest sense. As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I found all aspects of U.S. social, cultural, and religious history interesting, and I was loath to specialize in any one field. The Chautauqua movement, with its many and far-reaching branches, allowed me to pursue all of these...

  5. 1. An American Forum: Methodist Camp Meetings and the Rise of Social Christianity
    (pp. 15-46)

    I begin with one of Chautauqua’s foremost historical puzzles. How did it come to originate in Chautauqua County? This sparsely settled corner of westernmost New York State, bifurcated by a slender, meandering lake, has long struck observers as an unlikely birthplace for a major national cultural movement. Seeking to explain its germination there, commentators often compared Chautauqua to the settlements of religious dissenters and utopians dotting central and western New York throughout the nineteenth century, such as the Mormons, Oneida communitarians, German communists, evangelical revivalists, and Lily Dale Spiritualists. By this reading, Chautauqua was the latest perturbation in a long...

  6. 2. The Never-ending Vacation: Boosters, Tourists, and the Fantasyscape of Chautauqua
    (pp. 47-85)

    The success of Vincent and Miller in New York inspired numerous imitators. In the twenty-five years after the inaugural assembly, stories spread about the little camp meeting that made it big. Scores of independent Chautauqua assemblies emerged in towns and small cities from Maine to Texas to California. By century’s turn, more than one hundred towns had held assemblies patterned after the original. At least twenty-two of these were, as the original, established on preexisting religious camp meeting grounds. These assemblies eclipsed their predecessors in depth and scale. Crude encampments of three hundred people grew into massive, railroad sponsored resorts...

  7. 3. Canopy of Culture: Democracy under the Big Tent of Prosperity
    (pp. 86-127)

    What was the “Chautauqua idea,” and what were its social and political implications? Did it hold promise as a workable model of participatory democracy, or did it simply express the class and racial privileges of its creators? To answer such questions, we must look at the lives of four leaders of the Chautauqua movement, three of them Protestant ministers, all members of the middle or upper classes, and all fervent devotees of the Social Gospel. John Heyl Vincent (1832–1920), along with his partner, industrialist Lewis Miller (1829–1899), presided over the marriage of the camp meeting and the Sunday...

  8. 4. The Liberalism of Whiteness: Webs of Region, Race, and Nationalism in the Chautauqua Movement
    (pp. 128-160)

    The Civil War and the constitutional amendments that followed confirmed, on a theoretical level, the citizenship of emancipated black Americans. However, African American men and women remained trapped in a web of law and custom that excluded them from the political process and conspired to keep them in inferior jobs and schools. Social Gospel advocates rarely targeted their reform efforts toward these victims of institutionalized discrimination, preferring instead to focus on impoverished whites: the immigrant, the orphan, the widowed mother. Rarely were blacks identified as worthy objects of charitable effort and uplift. Perhaps this reflected the notion that the “race...

  9. 5. From Parlor to Politics: Chautauqua and the Institutionalization of Middle-Class Womanhood
    (pp. 161-206)

    In 1929 writer Zona Gale recalled her childhood in Portage, Wisconsin, in the 1880s, when she eavesdropped on her mother’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) meetings. The “Katytown Circle” was held in Mrs. Artemus Mason’s hideously overstuffed parlor. All around were clashing reminders of refined taste, including “ ‘golden floral’ wallpaper” and a “high bronze and black hanging lamp” from which “hung an ostrich egg, painted with cat-tails.” On the floor was a “round felt mat, pinked at the edge and beaded in Greek design.” Each time the bell rang, Mrs. Mason would call out to her husband, “Edward!...

  10. 6. Useful Knowledge and Its Critics: The Messiness of Popular Education in the 1890s
    (pp. 207-239)

    By the mid-1890s, Vincent and Miller’s experiment on the shores of Chautauqua Lake was a spectacular success. In just twenty years, it had spawned more than eighty imitators. Fifteen thousand men and women across the country were enrolled in the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC), with three thousand graduating yearly. In a nation of only 65–75 million persons, probably one-half million Americans participated in some form of Chautauqua fare every year in the 1890s. The original institution had tripled in acreage. Its summer program had ballooned from twelve to fifty-six days. Several Republican presidents and a cadre of...

  11. 7. Success through Failure: Chautauqua in the Progressive Era
    (pp. 240-285)

    Gazing at the lakeside city of classrooms and cottages from a steamer in 1897, urban reformer Jacob August Riis wistfully recalled the transformation of Chautauqua. Upon his arrival in the United States twenty-seven years earlier, Riis followed the trail of Swedes who had migrated to western New York. After building huts for miners on the Allegheny River’s muddy banks and doing odd jobs on the lake steamer to Mayville, he settled in Jamestown’s “Swede Hill,” a neighborhood of narrow streets and small balloon-frame houses overlooking the railroad yards. There, in the shadow of an imposing Lutheran church, he built furniture...

  12. Conclusion: Failure Through Success?
    (pp. 286-294)

    Much more could be said about the circuit Chautauquas of the 1920s. As the first nonprint media empire of the twentieth century, and precursors to radio and television, the circuits offer fruitful opportunities for research into the relationship between consumerism and political culture. The circuits left a wealth of published and unpublished papers, archival documents, and unrecorded oral histories, all of which deserve a more extensive and critical treatment than they have yet received. Alas, we have space in this volume for only the roughest outline. This is not to imply that the circuits were culturally unimportant. Rather, the brief...

  13. Appendix A: Independent Chautauqua Assemblies Founded 1874–1899
    (pp. 295-298)
  14. Appendix B: CLSC Incoming Class Enrollment and Graduates, 1874–1914
    (pp. 299-300)
  15. Abbreviations
    (pp. 301-302)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 303-372)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 373-386)
  18. Index
    (pp. 387-400)