For a community with a lakeside, arcadian setting, Chautauqua Institution poses a virtually insoluble dilemma: how do you take advantage of all its varied offerings—cultural, spiritual, recreational, and entertainment—and still manage to rest?
The problem is multiplied exponentially through its Special Studies curriculum, an outgrowth of the institution’s longstanding, even historic, commitment to lifelong learning. The Special Studies catalog numbers more than 70 double-column pages for this season alone. You can take a course in almost anything: art, finance, computers, physical fitness, dancing, hobbies, cooking, languages…you name it. With most classes, you can choose to pay for an entire week or individual days.
This time, since I had some errands to run, I chose the latter, starting out with two Civil War-related classes: the poetry of Walt Whitman (a nurse during the conflict) and the Book of Job as seen through victims (notably, the families of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis). This is in keeping with the kind of courses I’ve tended to take here: history, literature, religion, sometimes music and film.
My favorite place for a course over the years has probably been Hultquist, a modern building near the Amphitheater and the inn where I stay. Turner Community Center, closer to the Main Gate, is more of a hike. As for the Octagon (pictured), instructors and students must contend with speakers using microphones on the front porch of adjacent Alumni Hall and, even worse, heat and humidity.
In one sense, the Octagon is an appropriate site for a class on Job, since, when the weather is at its worst, the building sorely tests the patience of occupants. Fortunately, in Raymond Merz, we had an instructor equally well-versed in theology and American history who knew how to keep the class moving at a good clip. Moreover, it was good to read, in depth and in its entirety, a part of the Bible which, in its focus on sudden, undeserved calamity, is all too relevant nowadays.
Though I had to hustle to Turner make my 9 am class on “Walt Whitman: Cosmic Poet of the American People,” I was also very satisfied with this class. I had had only one, at most two, sessions on him in an American literature survey course in college. The instructor, Gretel DeRuiter, concentrated heavily on the texts themselves, bringing in biographical details strictly as needed. (Much of this would have been superfluous in any event, as the extraordinary sexual frankness of Whitman's verses leaves no doubt about his same-sex attraction.)
The two classes meant that, through early afternoon, my schedule would be full. Sandwiched between them was the 10:45 Amphitheater lecture on Lincoln by David Von Drehle. The focus of his recent book Rise to Greatness—the President in 1862—was, technically speaking, a year off this week’s topic. But he was focused, informative, often humorous, and, in his conclusion, deeply moving: “It was a phenomenal vision of America that he had. Of an America that is represented right here. Chautauqua represents the ‘right to rise.’ To make of ourselves what we can. To improve ourselves together, in community. This is the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.”
I used pockets of time in the afternoon to catch up on my writing and reading for the next day. If I was going to miss somebody, it was going to be longtime Democratic operative Donna Brazile; I doubted if she would say anything at the Hall of Philosophy that she hadn’t already expressed on CNN a thousand times.
Mid-afternoon on Tuesdays is “social hour” for the numerous denominations at Chautauqua. I took the opportunity to go to Catholic House, a handsome building close to the Amphitheater. Unfortunately, social hours here represent, with their rich variety of goodies, something troublesome for Christians: infinite temptation. In past years here, I have followed a college friend’s credo that calories don’t count on vacation. This time, though, eyeing my waistline, I decided to stick to good conversation and (non-alcoholic) punch.
The evening entertainment at the Amphitheater didn’t particularly interest me, so I ended the day’s activities with a piano recital late in the afternoon. Arriving a bit late for the start of the performance, I sat outside, along with several other people, waiting for a break in the program. Even with the doors closed, the music was quite audible. Unlike listeners inside, we were also regaled by the voices of singers practicing in small nearby shacks at the edge of the grounds. (Listen, don't mock those sheds: When he was having trouble concentrating while at the Carey Cottage Inn, George Gershwin secluded himself in one of these and made great progress on Concerto in F.)