Friday, July 28, 2017

Cross-century connections

While I am indeed a Victorian at heart, (witness my slightly mad desire to immerse myself in the 19th-century Chautauqua Literary & Science Circle experience), I still appreciate and enjoy today’s communication conveniences. So, when I got an email from the CLSC Veranda manager informing me of an upcoming meeting to appoint class officers for "my" Class of 2018, along with selecting a class motto, banner, flower and other mementos of their moment in the sun, I immediately emailed back and asked if there was any possibility that the meeting could be Skyped. My on-the-job and off-the-clock logistics (and my vacation-weary budget) made it unlikely that I’d be able to join my cohort on the Chautauqua campus in early August.
Altogether, a pretty darned interesting intersection between Chautauqua’s past and its future. And when you think about it, it’s really not so crazy. Victorians embraced new technologies as fast as inventors could crank them out. Phones, electric lights, patent gadgets of all sorts—the Chautauqua founders were proudly progressive and encouraged attendees to reach towards tomorrow while staying true to their spiritual roots.
BTW, the CLSC manager seemed especially tickled with my list—it’s the first one this year, she said, with so many “old selections” in it! I wonder how many people are in my class thus far? I wonder if I can drum up any interest in a primarily 19th century booklist? I'd love to locate others who might enjoy a literary fossil hunt to seek for any still-living DNA of Truth.... 

Since my first book will be Isabella Alden’s “The Hall in the Grove,” my next challenge is to locate a contemporary book about a disparate group of essentially unschooled people who find their purpose in life at a shared spiritual and educational gathering. Anyone have any suggestions?

“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” Zechariah 4:10

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Fair flashback

For young bookworms like me, the distribution of the flimsy newsprint Scholastic Book Fair order forms was a cause for wild excitement. My dear mother, also an avid reader, usually slipped me a few extra bucks so I could buy beyond the limitations of my meager allowance. She understood.

This weekend, as I scrutinized the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle (CLSC) reading list to select my dozen choices, I got the faintest metaphysical whiff of newsprint. Such a bounty of books! I had some culling to do—the list is over 800 books long—and since I’m seeking the full-on 19th century Chautauqua experience, my criteria echoed that founder Dr. Vincent’s: selections must “promote habits of reading and study in nature, art, science, and in secular and sacred literature.” With that in mind, I cast a pretty broad net, incorporating titles I normally wouldn’t give the time of day to—like, say, anything with the faintly formaldehyde-ish scent of heavy science.  

Victorians were never known for being succinct, so I suspect some of these word-dense tomes will be seriously snoozy compared to today’s zippy texts, designed to allure the “reluctant reader.” (That was the selling point on the cover of a contemporary heavily illustrated, decidedly bloodthirsty children’s text on the Roman Empire. Another blog post for another day…) However, to fairly immerse myself in Pansy’s world, I’ve got to embrace the dry (“First Lessons in Geology”) with the juicy (passionate poet Robert Browning’s “Pomegranates from an English Garden.”).

 Here’s my dozen (in chronological, not reading, order):

  1. Studies of the Stars (Henry Warren, 1878)
  2. The Hall in the Grove (Isabella “Pansy” Alden, 1881)
  3. First Lessons in Geology (A.S. Packard, 1882)
  4. A Short History of Art (Julia deForest, 1882)
  5. Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation (James Walker, 1883)
  6. Histories of Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great (Jacob Abbott, 1884)
  7. Pomegranates from an English Garden (Robert Browning, 1885)
  8. In His Name (Edward Everett Hale, 1885)
  9. An Outline History of Greece (Vincent/Joy, 1890)
  10. An Outline History of Rome (Vincent/Joy 1891)
  11. Science and Prayer (W.W. Kinsley, 1893)
  12. Twenty Years at Hull-House (Jane Addams, 1912)

Eager to build my modest CLSC library, I hunted down Victorian-era texts on eBay all weekend. Happily, I own the 19th century honey of a book that kicked off this whole escapist escapade: Isabella “Pansy” Alden’s “The Hall in the Grove.” Are you weird like me? I l can’t bring myself to read books “out of season”—if it’s summer, I can’t read a Christmas book. Since we meet the “Grove” characters on a sunny August day, it’s ideal for reading in my nicely muggy attic hideaway. Even better, this cherished, richly spiritual favorite sets the perfect moral tone for my studies and introduces many of the deep-rooted Christian ideals of Chautauqua’s origins. I like to think Pansy would have approved.  

Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law.” Psalms 119:18

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pilgrimage to another time and place

19th C. view of Chautauqua's Hall of Philosophy

I first encountered Victorian writer Isabella “Pansy” Alden through the writings of her niece, the still-popular, prolific author of Christian romances, Grace Livingston Hill. And once I started reading Isabella’s beautifully penned, deeply earnest wake-up calls to her era’s drowsy believers, I was captivated. I’m not the only one who simply can’t get enough of her—a wonderful tribute blog introduced me to dozens of her stories and books. I’ve read simply everything “Pansy” has scribed—and am hungry for more.
In several of her most acclaimed novels, Pansy sings the praises of Chautauqua (originally a 19th century assembly for Sunday School teachers and participants in their innovative home reading course—the famed “Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle” aka CLSC). After reading (and re-reading) these wonderful novels, I decided (much like hundreds of her long-ago readers), to visit this charming Western NY lakeside cultural conference center and contemporary watering hole for NPR types.
My pilgrimage ignited a burning desire to graduate with a Class of 2018 diploma from the CLSC, 140 years from its inception in 1878. That would mean my completing the required 12 texts from their reading list in one calendar year. Challenge accepted.
Once any reader has met their delightfully laid-back requirements, they qualify to join their "graduating class" on the still-gorgeous grounds of Chautauqua and walk through the Golden Gates of their historic “Hall of Philosophy”—a pillared and portico-ed outdoor forum for gatherings spiritual, cultural, and political. Pansy wrote extensively about her adoration and admiration for the physical presence and the spiritual essence of what she termed “The Hall in the Grove” and it’s in that spirit that this blog has been conceived.
The twist? Rather than choose from Chautauqua’s current (primarily fiction) booklist, I’ll be pulling my dozen books from their historic 19th century booklist. For extra fun, I'll also be selecting a contemporary book that examines the same--or a very similar--subject, i.e. 2015's SPQR by Mary Beard read in concert with Dr. Vincent's 1883 History of Rome.

Framing this whole project in my worldview as a devoted Christ-follower, I want to read what Pansy read, steep myself in the innocence, passion, and beauty of the founders' dreams, and walk in step with my long-ago brethren as they passed through the Hall of Philosophy’s Golden Gates in late 1800s. 
Two of Pansy's Chautauqua-centric novels
I’ll be documenting my CLSC year here, along with musings, spiritual discoveries, decidedly opinionated “book reports” and other reflections on the 19th century thoughts, mores, hopes, and inspirations that made Chautauqua the 19th century's rallying place for dedicated Christian workers.
Join me?

"For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." Romans 15:4