IF someone says "theater" to us we do not think of Coney Island. If a hotel is mentioned we do not imagine the type of city "drinkery" that has grown up under the Raines Law in New York, nor of the clapboard edifice opposite the country store, where an occasional book agent or traveling nursery-man may spend the night, to be sure, but where converting young farmers' earnings and old soldiers' pensions into liquid stimulant is the real function of trade. In either case we think of an establishment really devoted to such activities as its name implies.
Yet, there are numbers of American citizens to whom each of these two words means just what we have suggested above, and means little else.
Similarly, the name Chautauqua has its local connotations; and often they need to be guarded against.
A Chautauqua is not a picnic. The charm of outdoor life is so intimately associated with such gatherings from the outset that an indoor Chautauqua, even though it deserve the name, in every respect but one, seems an anomaly. A high wooded knob, above some body of water, is the typical seat of a Chautauqua. Good Chautauqua ground would be the best picnic ground, and there are many respects in which a Chautauqua will be like an annual and somewhat prolonged picnic. But it is less idle and far less sporadic. The true Chatauquan plans as definitely for his weeks at the assembly grounds as for his months at home, and when there he does not think merely of dawdling away his time. He goes with a purpose in view for himself and his family. Going to a Chautauqua, by the way, tends to become very much of a family affair, which is a healthy sign. Tents, habitations of a season though they are--even tents may suggest a degree of permanency and seriousness. When tents give place to substantial cottages, costing from one to six or eight thousand dollars, when modern sewerage and lighting systems and heating plants are installed, when amphitheaters of iron and halls of brick or concrete or stone shape themselves, when the greatest organ builders and the most famous architects and the best decorators are called to do their part, surely the physical side of the development alone would declare a purpose and a meaning. These are the things that happen or tend to happen, one by one, in the material growth of a real Chautauqua. They could not happen in any place where the mere picnic idea, even if much extended, should prevail.
The Chautauquas that are permanent are not merely "talent" exhibits. In so far as summer gatherings in the woods are a response to men and bureaus who have "stunts" to do and who clamor for an audience, they are artificial things, and passing. They have their day and cease to be. But the true Chautauqua is an embodiment of things which the people have desired and will still desire. Its speakers, from whatever walk or rank, are there, because the people have called them; its people have not been called by megaphone to make audience for the speakers. In saying this we remember that professional speakers, lecturers, readers, entertainers and actors "must live," and we do not deny that they may legitimately create in some degree, a market for their wares. We insist, however, that the genuine Chautauqua is not called into being by them, nor by any other interest that seeks the people's favor. It springs up, rather, from a spontaneous demand of the people themselves, or from a desire to do the people good. Many of the most substantial contributors to the program of such an assembly are not in the talent market at all, at any price. They are social reformers, educators, philanthropists, legislators, propagandists of ideas rather than of their own reputation. No, far it be from us to deny that professional entertainers must live; but the real Chautauqua, in so far as it is legitimate ground for their propaganda at all, is so under limitations. It will not let them take the initiative in shaping its program.
The lighter amusements, too, of such an assembly, though they may seem trivial enough at times, and especially of an evening, satisfy healthy and innocent desires. The freak show, the high diver, and the ring champion with his sparring partner, are quietly, naturally, and inconspicuously absent. As for the ranting politician and the office seeker, he gets a temporary footing now and then; but the people soon find him out and will have none of him. They claim the Chautauqua as their own institution, where questions that concern them shall be answered in good faith by men who know or have a reasonable theory; and they will not bear with the man who tries, here of all places; to use them for his own purpose of personal exploitation or money grubbing. The Chautauqua is not a quack device to lure the people into any man's net. "The one for the many, not the many for the one," is a familiar Chautauqua motto.
Again, if the Chautauqua is not an invention through which the professional gesticulator and vocalizer may be heard neither is it a money making enterprise for any local management. In name it may be organized as a stock company, but if so it is not managed for profit. Preferably it is operated like the parent institution at Chautauqua, New York, under an educational charter, which eliminates the chance of personal gain altogether, requiring that any surplus shall go back into the development of the work.
Still, again, the real Chautauqua is no cheap imitation or pretense of anything else. It does not profess to make scholars in a fortnight, nor to give a college course through simple readings for twenty minutes a day. What it does profess to give by its summer schools is an impulse and a lift in the right direction, an introduction to a desired subject, or help to fill in some gaps of knowledge regarding a subject somewhat known. By home reading, not the exactitude and exhaustive knowledge of the scholar, but the broad outlook of a cultured mind may be given, and intellectual faculties may be kept vigorously alive. This however, borders upon telling what a Chautauqua is, and we are at present busy telling what it is not.
A Chautauqua is, properly, very different from a camp meeting. The first historic gathering in Chautauqua County, New York, was a gathering of Sunday School workers, and one of its leaders was a clergyman, not yet bishop, of the Methodist Episcopal Church. But that the people were Sunday School workers has very little to do with the case, and that this leader was a future Methodist bishop has meaning only by as much as it suggests a wise and good man. The movement, as it has developed, is neither a Sunday School movement, nor a religious movement in the ordinary sense. It is religious only in that it gives formal religions observances their due place and is devoted to ennobling life in every way.
The Chautauqua is not a high-priced, fashionable summer resort. While it is true, as has been said, that its patrons tend to build better and more substantial houses as time goes on, yet this tendency is always toward comfort and good taste, never toward display. One boarding mistress boasted that her house was filled with people who had diamonds up to their knuckles, but probably the boarders ought not to be judged by her remark. If truly characterized by her doubtful compliment, they are by no means representative of the Chautauqua constituency. Chautauquans include rather more of the sort who might have diamonds but don't in any lavish quantities, and who know when to leave them at home. They include still more of the kind who can afford neither diamonds nor the kind of accommodations that such ornaments would imply. If any assembly reaches the point where it can not provide good, simple, wholesome fare, in tent or cottage, or boarding hall, for the poor school teacher and the ambitious student at a moderate price, where the best seats in its amphitheater are reserved for moneyed patrons, where dress and ostentation and bumptiousness drive modest and timid people into the back corners, where only prosperous and influential interests can get a hearing on its platform, and the utterance of things which mean hope for the nation, physically, mentally and in character is forbidden--if any assembly should ever reach this point, then whatever we call it, in heaven's name let us not call it a Chautauqua.
The Chautauqua movement, if we comprehend by the phrase only what belongs to the genuine Chautauqua movement, is a unique thing, and a local Chautauqua proper is widely different from any other thing that may be compared with it. It is not a country picnic, nor a prize exhibit of talent, nor a political convocation, nor a financial enterprise, nor a cheap imitation of a college, nor a camp meeting, nor a "select" and "exclusive" summer resort. There are many things that a Chautauqua is not, but some of them, happily, will not be mentioned. Say that it is nothing vulgar, nothing sensational, nothing sectarian or biased, nothing aristocratic and selfish; and by the law of exclusion you must conceive an institution of the people, and for the people at their best. In non-essentials the development may vary. But let it hold hard by these negations, supposing it to have the vitality which it is our humor in this article to assume, and no one will quarrel with its use of the honored and honorable name, Chautauqua.