Friday, June 13, 2008

Chautauqua In The Summertime

I'll be heading to the Chautauqua Institution in Bemus Point, New York with my Dad right after the Fourth of July. It's a place rich with family history dating back to when my Mom vacationed around those parts with her family as a child. In fact, somewhere there's an amazing Super 8 from the early 50's of her Dad reeling a fish out of Lake Chautauqua. After my Dad married my Mom he was equally smitten with the place and they took us kids there, often staying a month or more over the summer months in a rented cottage or for a long weekend at the Hotel Lenhart.

The Chautauqua Institution, where my Dad and I will be hanging out for a week, is a fascinating place. It's the holdout (and now a designated National Historic Landmark) of a late 19th Century religious and educational movement that found its inspiration in that throughly American quest for self-improvement. Culture, with a capital C, along with heaping servings of Protestant religious instruction were the guiding lights of its founders, Lewis Miller and John Vincent, when they founded the Institution in 1874. In fact, its original name was Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly.

Now that sounds like pure drudgery to me. But it's not the Sunday School strain that I found compelling (and the sacred was never any real match for the secular in my family anyway) so much as the residue of those enchanted summers I spent there as a child in the early 80's and how they've shaped my own fond feelings for the place in the present. Not having been there in over 20 years, I'm excited to see how it's both changed and been preserved.

My parents gave me a couple nice coffee table books about Chautauqua for my birthday this year. In the preface of one of them, Chautauqua: An American Utopia, Jeffrey Simpson is kind enough to give voice to some of my own sentiments about the place. Simpson feels conflicted with the two Chautauquas that crowd his mind-- the modern, "vital Chautauqua of today," and the "kindly, sleepy, rather shabby Chautauqua" of his childhood. Of that old Chautauqua, Simpson writes:

This was the Chautauqua where it was said that "old ladies brought their mothers." It was a kind, serene idyll, a sort of Chekhov play where private dramas were played out in atmospheres of wicker and ennui.

I mean, the place has over 1200 Victorian cottages, most of them with porches smothered in wicker. I remember those old ladies hobbling up and down the hills. And those little Chekhov plays were being played out by my own family, accompanied by the sound of music students practicing clarinets from nearby porches mixing with the rattle of silverware from a hotel's kitchen somewhere below. I wasn't there for the cultural life, though I suppose I found it anyway at the local Boys and Girls Club, where I became friends with half a dozen or so other kids, most from New York City, for a couple fleetingly enchanted summers.

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