The Chautauqua Assembly Herald editorial for Aug. 18, 1897, announced it was to be a Red Letter Day in Chautauqua Institution’s calendar.
“It is quite possible that the early chimes this morning may have, to many who are with us, a certain ‘wake and call me early, mother, dear,’ air that is distressing to their sense of the fitness of things,” the editor wrote.
It would be early for so much activity on the street. There would be a procession with banners.
“To many, seeing the ceremonies of today in the streets and grove, it may seem just a little strange that people should take part in them with such earnestness,” the editorial read.
This ceremony. This strangeness. This earnestness. It was and is called Recognition Day, a symbol “of Chautauqua spirit, which stands for a wide friendship among all the people,” the editor wrote. “Every event of today means something. It may be to some merely fanciful and poetic. Even a playful fancy maybe serious in spirit, and there is never too much of the poetic and picturesque at any time.”
An Assembly Herald report a day later, on Aug. 19, indicated it had been a pleasant and successful day. The story included a large, boldfaced title with an exclamation point: RECOGNITION DAY! A series of subtitles followed, their sheer number a measure of the exuberance with which the celebration was undertaken.
It was the 16th annual commencement for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.
“The Romans Came, Saw and Conquered, and the Ivy Much in Evidence,” one subtitle read.
And another: “Charming Flower Girls, Enthusiastic Graduates, Happy Classmates, Imposing Ceremonies, Instructive Addresses, Bands and Banners, Columns and Choruses.”
Alliteration and assonance carried the day.
And hyperbole: “Mark Another Epoch in the History of the Great Circle that Encompasses the Earth.”
If the celebration and commencement could be represented with rhetorical decoration, the Circle’s creator, Chautauqua co-founder John Heyl Vincent, was as serious as dirt when introducing his new idea in 1878.
“Knowledge is power,” Vincent said in his Aug. 10, 1878, announcement of this new program. “Its acquisition develops capacity in the student to acquire more knowledge. Its acquisition develops power in the student to make use of all the knowledge he acquires.”
Vincent was not without rhetorical finesse — his chosen trope in this passage being anaphora, or the repetition of words at the beginning of two or more phrases or clauses. But the gravity of his words outweighed the flourish of their delivery.
The CLSC was to respond to and ameliorate social and educational inequality. It was the aim of the CLSC “to promote habits of reading and study in nature, art, science and in secular and sacred literature in connection with the routine of daily life, especially among those whose educational advantages have been limited, so as to secure to them the college student’s general outlook upon the world and life,” Vincent said.
An editorial in the Aug. 12, 1878, issue of the Assembly Herald celebrated Vincent’s ground-breaking idea.
“Every educator and parent in the land should second his efforts as mapped out here, because he seeks to redeem the young people of the country from the corrupting influence of pernicious literature, which has no tendency to lift them up intellectually or morally,” the editor wrote.
With graduation and recognition of one class of students came introduction to the next, and the Aug. 19, 1897, editorial for the Assembly Herald reported that “this year is called the German-Roman Year. This means that the course of reading is divided between ancient Rome and modern Germany.”
In the Oliver Archives Center, five books are nestled next to each other on the bookshelf housing CLSC books, embodying the reading list for 1897-1898: Roman and Medieval Art by W.H. Goodyear, The Social Spirit in America by C.R. Henderson, Roman Life in Pliny’s Time by Maurice Pellison, A Short History of Medieval Europe by Oliver J. Thatcher and Imperial Germany: A Critical Study of Fact and Character by Sidney Whitman.
The Aug. 19 editorial reported that the books on Germany and Europe “supplement and explain each other, for Modern and Imperial Germany sprang from the Europe of the Middle Ages.”
Along with the two books on Rome and Roman life, the “four books give a wide outlook over the life, history, literature and art of Rome and Germany, and incidentally of Europe.”
Insofar as the CLSC was to be about science as well as culture and literature, the C.R. Henderson book on the social spirit of America was especially important.
“This year we are to take up a comparatively new science — the science of human institutions,” the editorial reported. “It shows us that a real education must include the study of ourselves in our relations to our neighbors, our countrymen, and our fellow citizens of the world.”
On Aug. 18, 1897, “Mother Nature was inclined to a sullen mood … as if all unconscious that Recognition Day of the Class of 1897 of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, the great day of the season, had dawned,” the Herald reported.
The sun struggled to shine. Clouds played hide and seek. The sun eventually burst through, however, “and sent a shower of golden arrows shimmering through the trees. The raindrops were turned to glittering diamonds.”
There was a gay breeze. There were laughing waters. There was a hint of autumn coolness in the air. Everyone was astir at an early hour. Groups of children flitted here and there.
“When the bell struck at 8:45 a.m., calling various divisions of the great procession to their respective rallying points,” the Herald reported, “every member of the CLSC, past, present, or to come, was alert to obey the summons.”