From the front porch: ‘Better Not’

Column by John Warren

And so it comes to my attention that John Heyl Vincent, the esteemed co-founder of all this, once wrote a pamphlet-book titled “Better Not.”

It’s about a hand-picked bushel of his (least) favorite 19th-century vices. Namely, social wine drinking, card-playing, theater and dance. And here was his verdict: “We do not think there is any halfway ground.” When in doubt, better not.

Imagine: Here, at Chautauqua, where the official gesture is the finger wag, and “Shoosh!” the official slogan.

Perfect, right?

But what he had to say is worth consideration for reasons other than a backward-looking guffaw (they said “guffaw” then). After all, this is one of the minds that went into drafting Chautauqua’s Constitution, as real as if it had been put to pen and paper.

“Better Not” sheds light.

Let’s hit the high points in the pamphlet-book, published in 1891 — 17 years after Chautauqua’s founding.

Wine: “This harmless little elf that you toy with at a dinner table, sparkling, laughing, alluring, is one of a mighty army,” Vincent wrote, pairing it with its “vulgar cousins,” rum and whiskey.

“Better not touch wine.” And then: “Better not drink wine at all — of any kind — anywhere.” Got it? If not, there’s this: “For every reason, ‘better not’ touch wine.”

Cards: “How innocent-looking are these little bits of stiff paper!” Vincent exclaimed.

The card table itself, though, is “supported by avarice, by infatuation and by fashion.” Not enough? For good measure, Vincent’s cup of admonishment frothed over: The card-playing table is “the table of death.”

Theater? “There are lights too brilliant to look at.”

Not persuaded? “It is furnishing candidates for the brothel.”

Have you put down the Playbill yet?

“The tendency of the theater is, on the whole, exceedingly bad. This statement cannot be contradicted. Therefore, let who will patronize it, the motto of the consistent, earnest, unselfish Christian youth must be. ‘Better not.’ ”

Dance? “If no one danced but very young people or very old people, and if their use of the recreation were purely recreative, in broad daylight and in the open air and for a little time, it would be hard to find anything severely to condemn in it.”

That’s a ballroom full of qualifiers. It’s OK to dance, as long as your brain hasn’t fully developed, or if it’s actively in the process of undeveloping.

“It mingles the sexes in such closeness of personal approach and contact as, outside of the dance, is nowhere tolerated in respectable society.”

He quotes a writer who called it a “giddy kaleidoscope,” which sounds a little Woodstock to me, but there you go.

Wrapping all this avarice with a loopy red bow, Vincent served up this explosion of hyperbole:

“Peacocks may strut about, flaunting their colors in the sunshine; swine may eat and eat and drink and drink, filling their filthy stomachs and sating their vulgar appetites; monkeys may play their tricks on each other and grin over their success at a comrade’s expense (a pack of cards would only increase the success of their cunning); terriers may leap and dance; stand on their hind legs, jump over sticks and embrace each other in the unwearying frolic and ‘have a good time.’ But do peacocks, swine, monkeys and pet dogs constitute Society for rational beings?”

So. What gives? Was Chautauqua’s co-founder a grim man, a prude? And by extension, did he mean for intolerance to be the flag that these grounds should wave.

The evidence says no. He had a reputation as a cheerful, vigorous fellow, albeit no doubt affected by the prevailing opinion of his time, that the Second Coming was tied to the millennium. He had a natural platform presence, and a sense of humor.

He was fine with the “right” forms of fun. Music and art got the OK. And recreation — lawn tennis and croquet and the like — he deemed those “proper studies in a world made by a universal creator.”

And, remember, he called the pamphlet “Better Not.” He could have called it “Don’t.”

Maybe the circa-2015 revision would be titled: “When in Doubt, Leave it Out.”

Consider wine. Yes, some men can handle their drink, Vincent acknowledged. Then again, many would soon enough trade the wine glass for something stiffer.

Better to have a fast rule and be done with it, instead of a world filled with “what-ifs” and “unless.” Avoid the slipperiness. Better Not.

Starting to sound familiar?

It came undone, of course; the Chautauqua way — a generation behind the rest of the world. By 1904, there was theater on the grounds. But only following a progression that began with dramatic readings from a podium.

And now, wine served at restaurants. Can its “vulgar cousins,” rum and whiskey be far behind?

Put your toe in the lake. A little cold? Better Not.

Last thing. There is a promotion in the back of “Better Not” for two other Vincent tomes: “Letters from Heaven” and its companion, “Letters from Hell.” It promises descriptions “intensely realistic.”

“Better Not” was plenty, thanks. “Letters from Hell” will be on my light reading list for another season.

John Warren is a writing coach and columist for The Chautauquan Daily. You can reach him at or on Twitter via @johndavidwarren.