Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Chautauqua Moment

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Chautauqua Moment

Article excerpt

"'Dancing Mothers': The Chautauqua Movement in Twentieth-Century American Popular Culture" by Russell L. Johnson, in American Studies International (June 2001), 2108 C St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20052.

Theodore Roosevelt called it "the most American thing in America." Born in the summer of 1874 at Lake Chautauqua in western New York, the chautauqua movement enjoyed a 50-year reign over American cultural life.

When they began a summer-training program at Lake Chautauqua for Sunday-school teachers, Protestant ministers John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller had no idea they would inspire "a vast national cultural movement," says Johnson, a professor of U.S. history at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. But within two years, similar assemblies for mass uplift "began springing up in small towns and cities across the nation." Organized and run by local committees, and often held in a large tent near a river or lake, the chautauquas would run for about a week. Mornings were typically given over to Bible study, and afternoons and evenings to a mixture of lectures, musical acts, debates, dramatic readings, birdcallers, and bell ringers.

Early in the 20th century, "circuit chautauquas" developed, as entrepreneurs put together traveling extravaganzas and required local committees to guarantee a certain level of ticket sales. …

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