Jovial ghosts

A century ago, the Chautauqua — a sort of high-brow Lollapalooza — was a not-to-be-missed event.

These open-air, education-and-entertainment extravaganzas once rolled from town to town throughout the country, setting up tents for as much as a week in any given city (though, even during their heyday, Asheville enjoyed only one such event — and that was 72 years ago).

Better late than never, though, the return of the Chautauqua to our town promises to be a community-building endeavor (and, one hopes, the first of many).

The rollicking Chautauqua had a studious start. In 1874, Methodist clergyman John H. Vincent teamed up with Lewis Miller, an Akron, Ohio-based businessman to create a series of summer courses providing more in-depth training for Sunday-school teachers. The lectures, held at Lake Chautauqua in New York, had a summer-camp atmosphere and proved to be as much fun as they were informative. From the first Chautauqua Assembly grew the Chautauqua Normal School of Languages, established in 1879. Other courses were soon added, until Chautauqua became a sort of summer university. Hotels, clubhouses, lecture homes and permanent summer homes sprouted up, completing the institution.

“Traveling to the Chautauqua Assembly in New York was not possible for everyone who wanted to attend such a summer school,” states a 1973 essay by Robert A. McCown, from the University of Iowa’s special collections. “Consequently, assemblies similar to the one at Lake Chautauqua appeared in various parts of the United States and called themselves daughter Chautuaquas or independent assemblies. These new assemblies usually had their own ‘campgrounds’ and preferably were located near a lake or wooded area.”

Before long, the lecture series grew to include a larger audience than just Sunday-school teachers, and educators such as James C. Redpath — a former South Carolina superintendent of schools — got involved. The Redpath Lyceum Bureau was founded in 1868; over the next 10 years, it attracted such famous faces as Susan B. Anthony and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Those running smaller assemblies became eager to attract big-name speakers, as well, and in 1901, a man named Keith Vawter bought a one-third interest in the Redpath Lyceum Bureau and invented the circuit Chautauqua.

It was 1904 when the first event finally got rolling, so to speak, traveling to 15 towns in Iowa and Nebraska. The venture lost money, but Vawter kept trying. In his essay, McCown reports, “In 1907, Vawter ran a circuit of 33 towns. According to the contract, [he] furnished all of the talent, tents, work crews and advertising.” Vawter was eventually able to expand the length of each event. The first group of lecturers would arrive, speak, then leave the next day for the next stop; they’d be followed by successive waves of speakers, staggered to provide several days of entertainment at each stop.

Thanks to the railroad, the reign of the Chautauqua also expanded. The traveling show brought New York-style culture to small towns everywhere, becoming the predominant source of education for those living in rural areas (at one point, one in five Americans participated in tent Chautauquas).

Redpath brought the traveling show to Asheville nearly century ago. Nearby Greenville, S.C., hosted many Chautauquas from 1915 to 1928, but only one ever made its way into the hills (though WNC did contribute its 2 cents obliquely: Poet Carl Sandburg, who lived in nearby Flat Rock, was a frequent lecturer on the circuit, and William Jennings Bryan, perhaps Chautauqua’s most popular “star,” lived in Asheville from 1917-1920; Bryan once gave 50 lectures in 28 days).

A comical flyer, done by author Ralph Parlette in 1921, illustrates one philosophy behind the tent Chautauquas. Beneath a drawing of a two-headed man, Parlette wrote: “Comm has only one leg. Unity has only leg. Let them get apart and they are cripples. Get them together and they travel! That’s why we have to take time every little while to put up a tent or go to an auditorium for a few days and get together in meetings, discussions, entertainment, handshakes and visits. We have to get acquainted all over again and get US and THE REST OF US to going on both legs.”

Local Chautauqua organizer Deborah Compton insists that this curious sentiment is still relevant: “The Chautauqua idea was to uplift people where they were,” she explains. Asheville audiences will listen to lectures by Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter — portrayed by distinguished scholars from around the country — and be able to interact with their literary heroes, asking them questions and breakfasting with the scholars on the morning following their evening programs. Afternoons will feature lively workshops and a host of other activities.

“It’s a triple whammy,” enthuses Compton, who works for the Asheville-Buncombe Library System, the event sponsor. “We don’t want to give people the idea that [these are] boring lecture[s].”

Well, neither did Mark Twain, back in his day. It was Redpath who introduced Twain to the idea of Chautauqua (though Twain never lectured at a traveling show, he did take part in Redpath’s Lyceum Bureau). An unusual writer in that he was more successful as a lecturer than in print, Twain referred to his speeches as “talks” to deflect the negative presumption of a stuffy intellectual behind a podium.

“The Chautauqua was made for Mark Twain,” maintains Dr. George Frein, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of North Dakota, adjunct professor of religion at Furman University — and Mark Twain, to you, if you choose to attend the upcoming local Chautauqua.

In the early 1900s, Chautauquas presented a wide range of ideas to the audiences they served. Political lectures, such as Don Smith’s “Peculiarities of the Presidents,” popular in 1929, provided sophisticated subject matter. In the 1930s, topics often centered on overseas concerns.

“The United States was culture-hungry,” explains Frein. “Exotic topics were appealing to people who knew little about foreign countries.” But despite the great success and social importance of the Chautauquas, the advance of the automobile and moving pictures threatened its sovereignty. Trying to compete for the attention of the masses, tent Chautauquas began to add music, drama, dance and novelty acts. These new elements cheapened the events’ value, in some eyes, and — additionally threatened by the Depression — the traveling shows gradually vanished into obscurity.

A little more than 20 years ago, a tent-Chautauqua revival was attempted in North Dakota — with limited success. But when the program’s organizers asked its lecturers not merely to discuss famous writers but to actually act the roles — in costume, no less — attendance increased tenfold.

Having impersonated Mark Twain for the last five years, Frein knows a thing or two about his doppelgaenger:

“When he was 46 and visited New Orleans with the author George Washington Cable in 1882, Mark Twain found himself charmed by the ‘half-forgotten Southern intonations of his childhood.’ … ‘A Southerner talks music,’ [Twain] said, ‘At least it’s music to me, but then I was born in the South,'” the professor wrote in one article.

“From Tom Sawyer to Pudd’nhead Wilson, in all of his Mississippi writings, Mark Twain’s Southern characters ‘talk music’ because the author had such a good ear for the language of the South. But Mark Twain also had a good ear for the music he heard in the slave quarters as a boy, and his writing has the realism of the sorrow songs about it,” Frein continues. One of the professor’s selections at our Chautauqua will be a story told to the author by a former slave woman.

But Frein will also present (in character) Twain’s scathing criticism of Southern writers.

Looks like the mirror has two faces.

Southern Writers, the Buncombe County Chautauqua, will run Monday, June 19 through Thursday, June 22 on the grounds of the Smith-McDowell House Museum (283 Victoria Road).

Mountain music, courtesy of the Haywood Ramblers, and refreshments (most notably, popcorn from a vintage machine) will add to the atmosphere of tongue-in-cheek revelry and old-fashioned enlightenment. The festivities kick off at 2 p.m. on Monday, with a reading by Mark Twain, who’ll offer passages from Tom Sawyer. A Mark Twain breakfast takes place on Tuesday, June 20 at 8 a.m. in Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.).

In addition, a host of other famous Southern writers and workshops will be presented throughout the Chautauqua. Each day’s main event will begin at 7 p.m. at the festival site; daily workshops will be held at Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium. The Chautauqua will close on Friday, June 23 with a 10 a.m. workshop titled “Faulkner at the Movies.”

All events are free. For a complete schedule, contact Pack Memorial Library at 255-5203.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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