Summer lies ahead like a sparkling swimming pool and so many lawn chairs you don’t know where to sit. Since I was a little girl, every summer I’d prepare a reading list for the long hot months ahead. And every summer I was filled with excitement over what was contained within the pages of my stack of books. This tradition has continued well into my adult life – the anticipation and excitement of learning something new has never waned. The joy has never diminished.
Recently, after watching The Trouble With Girls, (a quirky and beautiful film,) I became fascinated by the traveling Chautauquas of the early 20th century. There is very little information on this historic and quite-significant and beautifully American phenomenon. But I did find two rare and well-written books on the subject. Chautauqua, (pronounced shah-tah-kwah,) was about learning and bettering one’s self, and the traveling circuit Chautauqua went by train to small, rural towns across the United States. Americans in the 1920s were insatiable for the opportunity to learn about song and dance and oratory and poetry and lectures and performances by cultured individuals from all backgrounds. They would congregate in tents on scorching hot summer days, to glean a bit of wisdom and learning and entertainment, before the Chautauqua packed up, boarded the train, and traveled to the next town.
It’s been almost 100 years since the last traveling Chautauqua. But the spirit of the Chautauqua is very much a personal one, alive and well within. My parents didn’t have much money, so we never traveled during the summer, nor could they afford to send me to camp. Every summer I had to entertain myself with books. Fortunately, my parents considered book money well-spent, so I could go to bookshops and libraries and come home with an armful of ‘summer entertainment.’ It was my own personal Chautauqua, and I loved it.
There’s also a mighty portion of cultural pride that comes with this period of American history. I’m happy to read about the millions of Americans who saved their money to attend the lectures and performances as a form of civic engagement and personal education. (At its peak, over 20 million people attended the summertime circuit Chautauquas.) And I’m proud to have tapped in to my cultural roots, so to speak, with my own lifelong tradition of summer reading and learning.
The Traveling Chautauqua, Caravans of Culture in Early 20th Century America, Roger E. Barrows
The Most American Thing in America: Circuit Chautauqua as Performance, Charlotte M. Canning
‘Till next time.