The most American thing in America
It’s Sunday morning and I am not at church. I’m sitting on the second story porch of a re-imagined colonial inn overlooking Chautauqua Lake. The narrow streets of The Institution are empty. From the east, a brick bell tower chimes the noon hour. A sprawling amphitheater to my west booms with prayerful hymns and dissonant organ as hundreds of my neighbors praise the glory of God. It’s raining.
The Chautauqua Institution–my home for the weekend–is a 750-acre parcel on the western shore of its namesake lake. It was founded in the late 19th century as a sort of vacation bible school for Methodist teachers. My friend Leah aptly describes it today as “NPR summer camp for adults.” For two months, The Institution hosts guest lecturers, dancers, operas, symphonies, plays, concerts and arts courses. Intellectuals, artists, senior citizens and yuppies flood the area to get away from reality and get a taste of utopia. At Chautauqua, liberalism, idealism, libertarianism and religion collide, resulting in an orgy of ism-laden ideas, but nowhere to put them.
The landscape at The Institution unfolds like a Wes Anderson wet dream. Cape Cod-inspired homes litter the meticulously groomed campus. Single-lane paved paths crisscross the property. Bicycles fill the streets while vehicles are a scourge to the daily craft fairs and pedestrian traffic.
A shuffleboard court sits outside my front window in front of a small harbor swaying with wooden boats and aging kayaks. Pastels seem to be the only available paints in town. A rustic cottage labeled “SPORTS CLUB” houses bocce sets and croquet equipment. The settlement’s bourgeoisie travel the grounds in monikered golf carts. There is no crime, no violence, no law enforcement, and (apparently) no fear. I haven’t locked my car or my room since I arrived.
This place is so close to perfect that it’s creepy. Any minute I expect to find out the people here are all vampire robots or there’s some monster in the lake that requires daily human sacrifices to sate its hunger. (Needless to say, I don’t think I quite fit in here.)
In an attempt to quell my paranormal (and paranoid) fears, I started researching the history of this place. I found Teddy Roosevelt once visited the Chautauqua Institution and dubbed it “the most American thing in America.” At the time, this may have been true. A century later, however, it might be more aptly titled the most nostalgic thing in America. In fact, the most American thing about this place today is they sell Starbucks coffee for $4 a cup. Though I’ve never been here before, the place evokes a flood of imaginary memories from my childhood. Its charm reeks of a younger, more vibrant America–the America still envisioned, and often enjoyed, by those with means or imagination. An America that only really ever existed in our hearts and minds.
The irony of this place is that its simplicity is disguised (and sold) as a luxury. Cars are a largely unnecessary extravagance, as are cell phones (I’ve hardly seen anyone use them). Nightly entertainment includes theater, live music, lectures or opera–there are no clubs, bars or velvet rope parties. Televisions are few and far between, but books fill shelves in nearly every house. People eat, play, drink, sleep and, today, pray. Before supper, they sit on their porches and chat with friends and strangers. It seems like a perfectly simple, ordinary way to live.
Yet visitors pay exorbitant amounts to vacation in this rural artistic utopia. Single family summer homes on the grounds list for close to $1 million. Dinner at the on-campus hotel costs $69 a person. A season pass to stay on the grounds costs over $1,000 and week-long courses cost just as much. The Institution is clearly a getaway for the affluent who wish to escape the stresses of affluence. And this–perhaps–is what makes it so uniquely American. When life becomes so bogged down with unnecessary excess, Americans will actually pay for the privilege of having their shit taken away. If decadence and materialism are a standard way of life, then simplicity becomes a luxury.
In a way, then, Chautauqua is still, essentially, very American: We dream of growing rich so we can buy all sorts of nice things, and then once we have those things, we pay to distance ourselves from them.
There was a time when this place may have been the most American thing in America. Economics aside, it espouses a libertarian lifestyle while championing progress, ideas, the arts, and intellectual discourse. But in today’s America, this place is an escape from everyday life rather than a microcosm of it. Chautauqua celebrates intellectualism and elitism, while most of America denounces them. It provides a haven for the arts while governments–both local and federal–are finding new ways to slash their funding. And it relies on simplicity and minimalism while we, as a whole, seem to be finding ways to make everything more complex.
But most important, it relies on the indulgence of the affluent and the support of the elite. It’s the American dream.