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[Detail] Filipino Varsity Four.

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: The Cultural Value of Chautauqua

For many rural Americans in the early twentieth century, circuit Chautauqua was a key component of their lives. For these people, the traveling culture show provided exactly what its promoters claimed --education, uplift, and entertainment at a fair price. Through the aegis of circuit Chautauqua, far-flung communities enjoyed Broadway musicals and talks by internationally known personages.

illustration of a monkey from ‘Mason’s Circus’.

Illustration from "Mason's Circus . . ."

Circuit Chautauqua, however, was not without critics. In 1920, Sinclair Lewis wrote that instead of offering real education, circuit Chautauqua "seemed to be a combination of vaudeville performances, Y.M.C.A. lectures, and graduation exercises of an elocution class." In 1924, at the height of Chautauqua's popularity, Bruce Bliven wrote in The New Republic that Chautauqua demonstrated the "mental poverty of Main Street."

This collection offers the opportunity to consider the question of the value of Chautauqua and to form conclusions based on its numerous materials. By observing changes in style and substance, researchers can also better understand how circuit Chautauqua affected and/or was affected by popular tastes.

  • What is Lewis's complaint against circuit Chautauqua? What does his comparison of Chautauqua with "vaudeville . . . Y.M.C.A. lectures, and graduation exercises" suggest?
  • What do Lewis's and Bliven's criticisms have in common?
  • Do materials in the collection support these charges against Chautauqua? Why or why not?
  • What evidence is there that circuit Chautauqua was a beneficial component of American culture?
  • Do you feel that the programs advertised in theses materials presented topics in appropriate ways? Do speakers seem to handle their topics with enough sophistication or are they pandering to a low estimate of the average audience member?
  • Are there any dangers to mixing education with entertainment?
  • How might the nature and size of the Chautauqua audience have influenced the content and quality of Chautauqua programs?
  • How might having to give the same presentation night after night have influenced the content and quality of the Chautauqua programs?
  • Did the content and quality of Chautauqua programs seem to change with time?