Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Going Down the Line: A guest post by Laurie Loewenstein, author of Unmentionables

Please help me welcome Laurie Loewenstein to the blog today.  Her original essay about Circuit Chautauqua, which features in her historical novel Unmentionables (out today in trade paperback), has piqued my interest in this unique form of itinerant entertainment and cultural education; I'm tempted to travel to see one of its modern re-enactments next summer.  Hope you'll enjoy her post!

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Going Down the Line
Laurie Loewenstein

Even before the first chords of “The Indian Love Call” are struck by five Filipino musicians, the air under the brown canvas tent is electric. Farm families and townsfolk alike have waited all year for this moment, and now the opening salvo has been launched with a vigorous strumming of mandolins, banjos and guitars. Hundreds of palm fans flutter against the oppressive afternoon heat as the audience readies itself for a week of edification, culture and entertainment.

From 1904 to the late 1920s, networks of orators, singers, humorists and orchestras toured the rural areas of the Midwest, South and West, in what became known as Circuit (or Traveling) Chautauqua. In 1924, when the phenomenon was at its peak, it is estimated that more than 40 million people attended a Chautauqua performance. Theodore Roosevelt famously called it “The Most American Thing in America.”

While rural citizens took a week away from the demands of farm and shop to bask in the rhapsody of chiffon-gowned sopranos, the mystery of illusionists and the allure of intrepid adventurers, it was the orators who reigned over the platforms. In his loose alpaca coat and with one hand on a block of ice to cool himself, William Jennings Bryan sweated out his famous “Cross of Gold” speech to as many as 30,000 people a night as he crisscrossed America’s heartland.

The handsome, silver-haired Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, Warren G. Harding, exuding small-town charisma, charmed Chautauqua audiences for decades with his discourse on Alexander Hamilton. Even after he was elected senator, Harding continued to step onto Chautauqua stages under the sweltering canvas. Harding’s open-hearted friendliness and soaring baritone trumped his critics, including H.L. Mencken who remarked that Harding’s words were nothing more than “a string of wet sponges.”

Formidable women lecturers, part of the rising tide of reform in the early 20th century, held forth on hundreds of Chautauqua platforms during these years. Jane Addams of Hull House fame, Ida Tarbell, a leading muckraker famous for her expose on Standard Oil, and suffragist Anna Shaw all took the stage at one time or another. Maud Ballington Booth, billed as the “Mother of Prisons,” spoke unceasingly about appalling conditions in British and American penitentiaries.

It was within this charged atmosphere of forthright orators, both male and female, that I imagined the fictional Marian Elliott Adams would take her place in my novel, Unmentionables. Marian, an activist for women’s dress reform, undertakes the grueling itinerary of nightly performances in small towns dotting the midlands in order to win converts to the loose tunics (sans corsets) that she advocates.

I was fortunate to find a wealth of digitized materials documenting Circuit Chautauqua compiled by the University of Iowa. Examining the multi-page program booklets passed out to every subscriber and the pamphlets distributed by hundreds of individual performers, I was able to re-imagine the world in which Marian moved. “Going down the line,” as regular Chautauqua talent called it, was not for the faint of heart. Many endured long train rides from one small town to the next over many consecutive nights. They learned to catch naps, as William Jennings Bryan did, on wooden benches with iron armrests for pillows. The heat under the tents was famously intense. Hail storms at times ripped holes in the canvas, but the orators did not drop a syllable. 

Source for photos: University of Iowa; reprinted with permission.

Traveling Chautauqua disappeared in the early 1930s, a fatality of the radio, which connected the isolated hamlets of America in ways the Circuit never could. Chautauqua, however, lives on. The Chautauqua Institute, the progenitor of the Circuit, continues its mission to provide ongoing adult education of the highest quality as it has since 1874. Beginning in 1904, the commercial booking agencies adapted the Institute’s format to create Circuit Chautauqua. Additionally, Humanities Councils in several states, including Ohio, Maryland and Nebraska, now mount summer Chautauqua events featuring historical impersonators.

In these ways while Circuit Chautauqua performers no longer “go down the line,” their voices and music still ring across the years.

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Laurie Loewenstein’s Unmentionables was published by Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Books, in January 2014 ($15.95, trade pb, 320pp). Visit the author’s website at laurieloewenstein.com.

15 comments:

  1. My great-grandparents would talk of chautauquas, a word most strange, which, of course charmed my girl-self immensely. Yet no matter who I asked, no one could tell me what it meant. They told me what it was, but not a definition.

    After moving to NYC I learned that our state was the birthplace of chautauquas, and even now in are held in summer on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York state. Incidentally then, I learned how chautauquas got their name. Nor, of course, do people now swelter under tents ....

    I for one would be so happy to see that American determination for reform, progressiveism and adult education the the chautauguas epitomized, return.

    Love, C.

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    1. I know - "chautauqua" is a great word. And, from the Chautauqua Institution site about its history: "Besides broadening access to education, the CLSC program was intended to show people how best to use their leisure time and avoid the growing availability of idle pastimes, such as drinking, gambling, dancing and theater-going, that posed a threat both to good morals and to good health." Heaven forbid! ;-) I like the concept very much, though, and would have loved to see a performance in person.

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    2. I love dancing! O dear. So did my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents. :)

      Love, C.

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    3. Now that I live in Rochester, NY, I am hoping to drive over to the Chautauqua Institute, or Mother Chautauqua, as it is known, this summer. Would have loved to have one night in those tents of old, too!

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  2. I've attended the Ohio Chatauqua in Lakewood the last two years and enjoyed it immensely! Last year's was held during a prodigious thunder and lightning downpour which made the tent setting quite an experience. The impersonators I've seen are wonderful and obviously work very hard on their craft.

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    1. I'm so happy to hear that - well, that it was so enjoyable, not necessarily the lightning storm! It's the Ohio Chautauqua that I'm thinking of going to see next summer. Probably the one in New Richmond, since it's closest, although Worthington is a possibility too.

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    2. This sounds like even more fun than state fairs -- and I quite like state fairs too. :)

      Also, can you all tell that I'm trapped inside -- TRAPPED I TELL YOU! -- inside by the weather outside? Such a degeneration in the descendants of my great-grandparents ....

      Love, C.

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    3. I've always liked state fairs. We also have the county fair each year in my town (which has been running continuously since 1854) although I don't find it nearly as interesting. It's mostly animals, tractor pulls, and amusement park rides.

      My sympathies on being trapped. Today is the first day in five days that I've seen more sights than my house and yard, and I am SO GLAD to be back at work.

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  3. As I read this post, I immediately thought of Chautauqua, NY, which was 40 miles from where I lived in Waterford, PA (I now live in Erie, PA). So when one of the commenters said that the Chautauqua in NY was the birthplace, I was proud of this area of the country & to learn more about it. I have been able to go to a few days of the festivities and also saw Lyle Lovett in concert there. Chautauqua is a lovely little village, and the Institute site itself is crammed with cottages that all lead to the center field and buildings and then the lake is the northern most point. Some of these houses are larger but others are cottages that seemed to be built from the early 20th century. I would love to read this book, but better yet know who would love to receive it as a gift. I will have to show him this blog post in conjunction with the book. Thank you so much for telling me more about the history of where I live & its connection with the larger Mid-west!
    Monique

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    1. I'd love to visit the actual Chautauqua site - it sounds totally delightful. And since I'm living now in small-town Illinois (where the novel takes place) I'm definitely going to be reading the book! Although I'm not a native Midwesterner, or maybe because of it, I enjoy learning about the local history.

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  4. Yes, because of the Chautauquas many midwestern farm families were not as isolated as we assumed. Kansas was recreating them in the 1970s.

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    1. Wish there were some re-creations in Illinois - although the Ohio ones may be just about as close.

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  5. Anonymous10:11 AM

    This just went in my "buy for library" cart - I think it would be a great book club suggestion.

    I also think this sort of civic/artistic/social initiative would be awesome to recreate, even in this hyper-connected yet "alone" world.

    Sarah OL

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    1. I'm going to ask our fiction selector to order this one for my library, too (thanks for the reminder!). We don't see too many historical novels set in rural Illinois out this way. I plan to review it for Small Press Month in March, if not earlier.

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  6. For a time in the past couple of decades, a number of state Humanities Councils sponsored Chautauquas, many featuring historic re-enactors. Ohio, Nebraska, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma and South Carolina are among those continuing this tradition.

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