After writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed onstage at the Chautauqua Institution on Friday, the idyllic New York community of Chautauqua, known for its annual summer educational and cultural programs and tranquil lakeside setting, was thrust into the international spotlight. For those on the ground, Friday’s events punctured the image of a utopian summer retreat — typically marked by thought-provoking panel discussions and leisurely swims. Sam Peters, 19, who has been attending Chautauqua Institution events with his grandfather since he was a baby, said the mood after the attack was one of disbelief, with many Chautauqua regulars asking, “How could this happen here?”
But what exactly is “here?”
To some, lowercase-c “chautauqua” is a common noun, used as shorthand for an educational event composed of lectures, performances and/or concerts, and not tied to any particular geographic setting. As it turns out, Chautauqua — the town and the institution that gave rise to the word — has a long history, leading to a social movement that defined America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The site in western New York, situated about 1½ hours from Buffalo, has been visited by some prominent figures in U.S. history, including four sitting presidents (Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton), Susan B. Anthony, Sandra Day O’Connor and Mark Twain. President Theodore Roosevelt attended several times, calling it “the most American thing in America.” Socialist labor organizer Frank Bohn once said, “He who does not know Chautauqua does not know America.”
The name Chautauqua is said to come from a word in the language of the Indigenous Erie people meaning a bag tied in the middle or two moccasins tied together — a reference to the odd shape of the lake that bears the name: two elongated bodies of water, just barely connected. The town of Chautauqua was established in 1805, slightly west of the lake.
In 1874, two Methodists, philanthropist Lewis Miller and minister John Heyl Vincent, founded the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, an academic resort and educational experiment intended to train Sunday school teachers and church workers. Gradually, the assembly grew beyond its religious origin and would ultimately evolve into the Chautauqua Institution we know today.
A few years after the original assembly was established, it expanded into other areas of general education. The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle was founded in 1878 with the mission of providing those who could not afford higher education with a “college outlook.”
One of the first experiments in remote learning, the four-year CLSC course was taught through mail correspondence and guided at-home reading. It was intended to help people use their free time in a more rewarding way (instead of, say, gambling or drinking). Students in remote areas — often women and rural laborers — formed reading circles to stay motivated and split the cost of books, spreading the influence of Chautauqua beyond western New York. At the end of their study, they were invited to Chautauqua to receive certificates of completion.
The success of CLSC led to what became known as the Chautauqua Movement, sparking “daughter chautauquas” that sprung up in far-flung areas across the United States from the 1870s to the 1930s. Eventually, the word chautauqua became a generic term to describe a range of educational events in rural areas. Traveling chautauquas began popping up around the turn of the century, also known as circuit chautauquas or tent chautauquas, with speakers and performers hired by talent agencies. According to some historians, the movement peaked around 1915, when 12,000 communities had hosted a chautauqua.
The movement faded in the 1920s. Historians cite a number of causes: a rise in car culture; the increased dominance of evangelical Christianity that didn’t align with the freethinking nature of chautauquas; and increased educational opportunities for women. The Depression also made financing difficult.
Nearly a century later, several active chautauquas remain in operation outside western New York, in such places as Mount Gretna, Pa., and Ridgway, Colo. And the original Chautauqua Institution continues to thrive, drawing more than 142,000 visitors each summer for a nine-week season. Guided by four pillars — arts, education, religion and recreation — the organization has its own theater company, symphony, opera, ballet and visual arts center, as well as classes, interfaith lectures, a rotating chaplain and outdoor recreation.
Documentarian Ken Burns has called the institution an embodiment of the “pursuit of happiness.” “Happiness with a capital ‘H’ is about lifelong learning and the improvement of the brain, the heart, the body and the soul throughout one’s lifetime,” he told the Chautauquan Daily. “And there is no place on Earth that embodies that rigor and that joy more than Chautauqua Institution.”
Mary Khosh, who has been going to Chautauqua for 50 years, said the institution has a history of handling difficult conversations with grace, making Friday’s attacks all the more shocking.
“It’s not a place where anyone shies away from discussions about anything that’s controversial. It’s a place where you do discuss heavy topics,” she said. “The wonderful thing about Chautauqua is it is inclusive and welcoming and warm. And I hope people don’t get so frightened that they change all that.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the day Salman Rushdie was stabbed. It occurred on a Friday, not a Thursday. This article has been corrected.