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Volume 3, No. 8: August 28, 2006

Another Corps of Discovery

Chautauquans and the People They Bring to Life

By Michael Bouman

Call me Ishmael...or something like that. For the past month I've been a seafarer on an ocean of human stories and people who bring them back to life. I've been finishing a National Directory of Chautauqua Performers.

We're producing this Directory to help people think of the fun of putting together a Chautauqua festival for their own town. People in Bonne Terre, Missouri have this down pat, and I'd like to help others explore this field.

My journey of discovery has taken on a new layer or two. It began as simple fact-checking for the listings of almost three hundred historical figures. Lately it has become a kind of spectator sport in the world of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an "open-source" encyclopedia on the Web. It's free and anyone can vie to contribute to it. Since it's wide open, there are referees for style and content, and a section for open discussion behind each Main entry. I've been watching the feathers fly in the discussion sections of various biographies that are referenced in our Directory. The fights are often about the reliability of cited sources or about the absence of citations. Equally often, they are about the quest to achieve a "Neutral Point of View," called an NPOV. Aside from neutrality, there are plenty of arguments about how the facts are slanted or interpreted. It is wonderful to see.

To cite one example, take a look at the breadth of discussion of the entry on Benedict Arnold.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Benedict_Arnold

You can learn a lot about bias in history by reading these discussions between scholars and amateurs who care enough to debate nearly anything, including whether "Eggs Benedict" is properly related to the story of Arnold.

You can also see a great deal of history none of us learned in school by perusing the list of historical figures in this Directory and clicking on the links to web sites about them. Have you heard of "Mad" Anne Bailey, the only female Revolutionary War scout and Indian fighter? Patty Cooper in West Virginia impersonates her. Here's a link about Anne:

http://www.americanrevolution.com/AnneBailey.htm

Do you know anything about the "Black Indian" schools?

This face from the past is Diana Fletcher, who is both African American and Native American and a figure in both chapters of American history. Her father escaped slavery in Florida and lived among the Seminoles. Diana's mother was a Seminole who died on the Trail of Tears. Diana was raised in the ways of the Kiowa by her step mother in Indian Territory. It is said that Diana became a school teacher.

As I am a parent, I look at pictures like this and experience a surge of parental feeling. I don't think much about "race," whatever that may be, when I look at a portrait. What if feel might best be expressed as, "she could be my daughter," and in one sense she is, regardless of when she lived, because I think that to belong to the human race is also to own the human race from beginning to end, top to bottom. I cherish this girl and this picture because she is my daughter, somehow.

Sherrie Tolliver in Ohio presents Diana Fletcher in Chautauqua programs. I've never met Sherrie Tolliver or spoken to her, but having worked on a facet of her career for the Directory, I also have a feeling of kinship with her. If you have read this far, maybe you have developed a feeling of kinship with me, too.

One of Diana Fletcher's contemporaries was the American writer, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Isn't that an interesting combination of historical figures to put into a Chautauqua ensemble? One of the senior masters of the modern Chautauqua, George Frein, does Melville.

James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and many other figures of the Civil War lived at the same time. So did Fanny Crosby, a blind writer of over 8,000 hymns. Emily Dickinson, too. Henry O. Flipper was just a young lad during the Civil War. He went on to become the first African American cadet to graduate from West Point.

If I were organizing Chautauqua programs, I'd begin with a few obscure but fascinating stories such as Diana Fletcher or Henry O. Flipper and surround them with well-known names from our history. I'd try to build a mind-bending experience for the audience, whether I offered three characters within one week or eight characters in a series of programs that took place once every two weeks or once a month.

There are so many ways to organize a Chautauqua experience for people; and there are so many people of exceptional drive and talent who work these characters up and present them all over the country. I want to see a time when the best of them are invited regularly to Missouri towns.

Speaking once more of daughters, I'd like to see a program involving William Allen White. Fred Krebs, a historian in the Kansas City area, does White. 

William Allen White died in the year I was born after a distinguished career as a Kansas editorial writer. He won the Pulitzer Prize. I find his writing has the effortless ease and economy that I know in the writing of E. B. White and Willa Cather. His sentence rhythm is as elegant as you'll ever see. It matches the elegance of his "idea rhythm." You can find a page about him at the web site of the Kansas State Historical Society. There's a link there to the full text of the eulogy he wrote for his 16-year-old daughter, Mary. That piece of writing eclipsed everything else he wrote in the minds and hearts of his readers, as if it is all you need to know to have the feeling that William Allen White belongs to your own family.