More than two weeks after coming home from Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, I still return, though only in my mind, to my seven days up there, even as I became distracted with enough pressing concerns at home that I didn’t have the opportunity to set down my final thoughts.
On Days 6 and 7 of my trip up there, Week 3, “America: 1863,” came to an anticlimactic end in its treatment of the Civil War. The last two lecturers of the week at the grounds’ Amphitheater, Annette Gordon-Reed (left) and Joan Waugh, for all their polish as speakers, gave presentations only questionably relevant to the week’s theme or that advanced our knowledge of the period little.
I had found relentlessly persuasive Ms. Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy when it appeared nearly two decades ago. I was looking forward to an equally convincing analysis of Andrew Johnson, and from some peeks I took at the book prior to the lecture, I was convinced I would learn much.
Explaining why she wrote about an American President perennially ranking among the worst (if not the worst) in history, Gordon-Reed correctly noted, “Just because someone is a bad President doesn’t make them an unimportant one.” Moreover, she probably surprised at least a few in the audience by asserting that in some respects, European race relations were even worse than ours (e.g., only recently did Cambridge graduate its first black doctor).
But her lecture never discussed what Johnson had to do with 1863, the focus of the week. (If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that in that year, Johnson lifted his chances of becoming Abraham Lincoln’s running mate by serving ably as governor of Tennessee after it came under Federal control again).
The week’s final speaker, UCLA historian Waugh (left), improved matters only slightly the next morning: at least she touched, in some way, on something related to 1863—the failed attack, by the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, on Fort Wagner in South Carolina (an event stirringly recounted in the1989 film Glory). But even in this instance, most of her lecture dealt with something unrelated: the “memory wars” that ensued when the guns fell silent at Appomattox.
Four traditions have vied for a hold on Americans’ beliefs about the Civil War since then: the Unionist, Confederate (or “Lost Cause”), reconciliationist, and emancipation traditions. While this was an interesting perspective, Waugh provided not so much history (the study of the past) as historiography (the study of how the past is interpreted). It really didn’t advance listeners’ knowledge of the Civil War or how it pertained to the present.
For that, I had to look to venues away from the Amphitheater. Kent Gramm, a professor of American literature, Civil War studies and creative writing at Gettysburg College, addressed a far smaller group gathered on the front porch and lawn in front of Alumni Hall. (His was one of the “Brown Bag Lunches” held mostly there throughout the week.)
One of the hoary myths associated with the Gettysburg Address, he told the audience, was that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope while traveling by train to the great battlefield to dedicate the military cemetery there. In fact, however, that story derived not from fact but a 1905 novel, The Perfect Tribute.
That seemingly innocent tale did a great disservice to the President, Gramm said, noting that the President had begun writing the address almost as soon as he received the invitation to make a "a few appropriate remarks.” In fact, not only had the President begun rehearsing immediately, but many of his rhetorical tropes had been engraved in his memory. (One example: one of Gramm’s appendixes contains Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Perhaps Lincoln intended to invert Gray’s “unhonored dead” when he began the climax of the address by paying tribute to “these honored dead.”)
Adding Some Music to the Day
The real highlights of the end of the week were not the lectures but the musical performances. No, Chautauqua does not have music halls that are, in effect, urban jewel boxes. But for most of the week, it does offer a constellation of young performers, playing in venues that are usually a short walk from one’s room on the grounds. And the famous pop/rock acts booked on Friday nights attract throngs to the Amphitheater.
Approximately 80 instrumentalists, for instance, are enrolled in Chautauqua’s summer music program, with additional students involved with piano and voice. (The students’ season lasts one week less than the full season at Chautauqua, and the lack of an orchestra at the institution is one reason why attendance drops the last week of the season here.) The sheds on the ground, site of so many practice sessions, have gained a fame of their own, since one was where George Gershwin, when he was unable to concentrate in the 1920s at the place where I stayed, Carey Cottage Inn, composed Concerto in F. (My account of its composition and premiere is here.)
McKnight Hall, located on the grounds' "music campus," featured a student recital early Thursday afternoon. Ten students, ranging in age from 15 to 23, accompanied by pianist Kanae Matsumoto, played viola compositions by William Walton, Aul Hindemith, Bela Bartok, Rebecca Clarke, Ĥenri Vieuxtemps, Max Reger, and Maurice. Some of the performers, unused to speaking directly to audiences, showed it in their nervousness, but that quickly disappeared once they set to work playing their instruments, with precision as much as passion.
That night, in keeping with the Civil War theme of the week, the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra played selections celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation under the direction of guest conductor Steven Osgood, including “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony.” Of special note was Marty W. Merkley’s dramatic narration for Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” and Lawrence Mitchell-Matthews’ superb baritone on five African-American spirituals. (It is doubtful whether anyone in the audience ever heard “Wade in the Water,” “Balm in Gilead,” “Changed My Name,” “Give Me Jesus,” or “Ride On King Jesus” rendered so movingly).
Michael McDonald was the pop headliner at the Amphitheater on Friday night. At only about an hour and 20 minutes, his was not a particularly long set, even by the standards of an institution where the music at the Amphitheater generally ends by 10 pm, and the energy dipped somewhat in the middle of the show.
But the former Doobie Brothers lead singer did manage to string together his hits of the Seventies and early Eighties with the group (“What a Fool Believes,” “It Keeps You Running,” “Minute by Minute”) with the rhythm-and-blues songs by other artists that were his stock in trade as a young band member (and which he covered in his bestselling Motown solo albums), including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” McDonald’s husky baritone was ably backed by a cadre of talented musicians, including bassist Tommy Sims, whose hit for Eric Clapton, “Change the World,” was also performed by McDonald and the group on this night.
After the show, I got ready for my long drive home the next day. As with the other times I have visited Chautauqua, while I was glad to be heading home, I was also sorry to leave behind a place that had subtly but overwhelmingly seeped its way into my consciousness over the past week. I was equally sure that I would recall all that I learned—and the thousand sights and sounds of a slower way of life, completely alien to my urban lifestyle—in the days, months and even years ahead.