Day Eight:

Wednesday, June 26
Democratizing American Culture: Albion Tourgée and the Chautauqua Movement


This session will focus on postbellum transformations of American democracy through consideration of the writings and career of Albion Tourgée and the rise of the Chautauqua movement. In 1881, Tourgée, a prominent civil rights lawyer and novelist, moved to the small town of Mayville in southwestern New York State. Tourgée had become famous for advancing African American civil rights and for two best-selling novels, A Fool's Errand (1879) and Bricks into Straw (1880). He pursued numerous literary and political endeavors from his home near Chautauqua Lake, working to advance opportunities for African Americans and serving as counsel for Homer Plessy in the landmark Supreme Court case of Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896). He also wrote realist novels on topics of current interest, including Button's Inn (1887), which is set near Mayville. Button's Inn portrays Mormonism in terms that echo Tocqueville's description of religious life in America.

This phase of Tourgée's career was conducted in close proximity to the Chautauqua Institution, a major religious and cultural center located five miles from Mayville. Founded in 1874 as a Methodist summer camp, by 1880 it had developed into a national forum for open discussion of public issues, international relations, literature and science. The organization spawned a network of traveling and local "Chautauquas" and a popular distance learning program that brought education and culture to the Midwest and beyond. The seminar will consider Tourgée's participation in an Institute event from 1883 that focused on post-war reconciliation. The session will illuminate the dynamic nature of post-war democracy in relation to civil rights and the formation of middle brow culture.

Tentative Readings:

Excerpts from John Heyl Vincent, The Chautauqua Movement (1886); Albion Tourgée, “The Negro’s View of the Race Problem” (1890); Is Liberty Worth Preserving (1892); excerpts from A Memorial of Frederick Douglass from the City of Boston (1895)

Optional Reading:

Albion Tourgée, Button’s Inn (1887)

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Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this seminar do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

View of the Erie Canal by John William Hill (1829)