EVERY TIME Chautauqua season rolls around, I feel compelled to rant about this bizarre cultural practice, which Teddy Roosevelt once called “the most American thing in America”—never mind that this honor deserves instead to be shared by baseball, blues, and bourbon. Chautauqua is defined by its practitioners as “a public humanities educational event in which scholars portray historical characters.” A more helpful definition was offered by little Caroline: “It’s when grownups play dress-up and act like dead people they really like in a tent.” It remains unclear to me why a form of education intended to be accessible to the entire community was given a name that even sober people cannot pronounce, much less spell. I am also troubled that Chautauqua is described as “living history,” a term every bit as logical as “Congressional action,” “industrial park,” “clean coal,” “adult male,” “true story,” and, in honor of this chapter, “act naturally.”
I am uncomfortable with Civil War reenactors, department store Santas, and Chautauquans, all of whom I suspect of being not only impostors, but also inebriates and pedophiles. That said, I agree with Chautauqua’s core presumption, which is that anything is better than reading a history textbook. Given the choice between a scholarly tome and a lawn chair parked next to a cooler of IPAs, the decision to support Chautauqua is not so difficult after all. And if the concept is, as I understand it, to trick benighted Americans into learning something meaningful about our nation’s past by seating us in the shade of a tent in a park and letting us drink beer, well then I am all in.
My favorite thing about Chautauqua is that, like other entertaining spectator sports, it can go off the rails in a heartbeat. The source of this peril is the fact that folks in attendance at the event are permitted to ask questions of the performers, who are obliged to answer while remaining in character. I once saw a Chautauqua performance of Henry David Thoreau in which the would-be Transcendentalist was excoriated by an older woman for supposedly failing to do his own laundry. “Get a job, you bum!” she yelled at the hapless Thoreau impersonator. I’ve seen FDR interrogated about impeaching Donald Trump, Harriet Tubman asked what year the Underground Railroad to California was completed, Christopher Columbus exhorted to condemn the NFL team name “Redskins,” and Mae West called out for her famous claim to have been Snow White before she drifted (“That just seems confusing,” objected the earnest young woman from the audience). I have even seen Will Rogers verbally abused because of his “obviously entirely super false claim” to have never met a man he didn’t like. (The inquisitor, in this case, was such a bloviating asshat that his behavior went a fair piece toward making his own argument persuasive.)
My buddy David Fenimore, who is the most gifted of the one Chautauquans ever to ascend Ranting Hill, has stories that last until the last bottle is empty. Once, while portraying gold baron John Sutter, David’s audience included a drunk guy dressed up like a Forty-Niner—a “One-Eyed Snaggle-Toothed Shaggy-Haired Hillbilly” who pulled a wagonload of pickaxes and gunny sacks behind him and shouted “Kick mah mule!” throughout the performance. On another occasion, David was playing Woody Guthrie to an appreciative crowd when a lady in a wheelchair rolled herself up to the stage and began loudly accusing him of being “a damned Communist!” Imagine spending months studying every detail of a fascinating life—David preps his roles by memorizing one thousand 5 x 7-inch index cards with facts related to his character—and then being hollered at by a soused miner or an enraged libertarian. Now that is public humanities education in the New West.
In some instances, the folks doing the portraying are every bit as batty as those on the receiving end of the performance. David relates the story of a local eastern Sierra mountain man who was a self-appointed Chautauquateer. “During the week, he made these giant, crappy chainsaw sculptures of bears, but every Saturday he’d come to town wearing a leather do-rag and claim to be Benjamin Franklin,” David explained. “He really looked like Franklin, too—long stockings down below, long grey hair up top, big forehead, round specs—only everything he said was pure anti-Federalist tirade. No more taxation of kites, that kind of thing. Sort of a Joe Chainsaw portraying Rush Limbaugh portraying Ben Franklin. You shoulda heard him when he got going on axing the Postal Service.”
The approach of Chautauqua season always reminds me of a memorable run-in I once had with some fake John Muirs. Having some years ago written a book on Muir, I was making the lecture circuit, blathering Muiriana at anyone who would listen. At one point, I was booked at a conference of hard-core Muirites, where I shared the program with Lee Stetson, an experienced Chautauquan who had been commissioned to do his acclaimed performance of Muir that evening. Lee has been doing his fake Muir thing since about the time Muir died in 1914, and it is honed. He has quite simply out-Muired Muir. Lee looks like Muir, acts like Muir, and he’s got Muir’s mild Scottish brogue nailed. I would even believe Lee if he told me that he smells like Muir. And do not make the mistake I did, of pulling on his long grey beard, because his face foliage is as real as was Muir’s own.
The trouble started that night, at the party that was held after Lee’s excellent Chautauqua performance of Muir. I was not selling many books, so I abandoned the signing table for the libations table, pitching camp next to a large tub of icy Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. After half an hour of elbow bending I noticed Lee across the room. He was wearing Muir’s familiar, well-worn leather vest and signature weathered hat. A crook-handled Sierra cup dangled from his hand-tooled belt, and, though he faced away from me, I could just make out a bit of his flowing, white beard. I crossed the room, and tapped him on the shoulder to congratulate him on his performance. But when he turned I was surprised to discover that this was not the real fake Muir but rather was an interloping fake fake Muir, a second-rate wannabe who apparently had his own John O’Mountains fetish.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Waahl, Laddie, of caarse I’m none otherrr than Johnny Muirrr!” he shouted at me.
I cringed at his abominable brogue, which was closer to Mike Myers’s portrayal of Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers movie franchise than it was to Sean Connery’s portrayal of Agent 007 in the old James Bond flicks. His costume was somehow too Muiry, as if he were suited up to play the famous environmentalist during a spirted evening of trick-or-treating. Plus, this cartoonish Muir was unacceptably amped-up, as John Muir might have been had he lived in the era of the Venti Triple Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappuccino. Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat to the beer bucket.
Popping another ale, I glanced up and, once again, saw the fake Muir across the room. But this time I noted that the tan of his leather vest appeared darker, and his hat seemed to have a slightly different cut to it—though the snowy beard and Sierra cup flowed and dangled just as before. I surmised that this must be the authentic fake John Muir, and so I grabbed my ale, cracked a second one for him, and once again strode across the room, this time intending both to congratulate Lee on his performance and also to alert him to the presence of an impostor fake Muir. As before, I tapped him on the shoulder, but, when he turned, I discovered, to my dismay, that this was yet another fake fake Muir, disconcertingly different from both the real fake Muir and the first fake fake Muir, and considerably less convincing than either one.
I looked him dead in the eye and took a long slug of first one beer and then the other. “And who are you?” I asked.
“Why, matie, I be the man John Muir!” he exclaimed, with an enthusiasm every bit as cloying as that displayed by the first fake fake Muir.
But rather than featuring a thick brogue, this guy just sounded like he was doing a flaccid imitation of a pirate, and his costume was much worse than a Halloween get-up. He also wore heavy makeup, and I picked up a whiff of what seemed to be pine-scented perfume. He looked like he was outfitted to play Muir in a burlesque show.
“OK, this won’t do at all,” I said. “Please go wait by the beer bucket, happy pirate. I’ll be right back.” I combed the room until I found the first fake fake Muir and asked that he, also, adjourn to the pale ale station. Then I hunted around until I located the real fake Muir, who was sitting calmly outside on the porch, chatting quietly with a friend.
“Lee, have you seen this shit?” I interrupted at first sight of him. “This place is crawling with fake Muirs, man. They look awful, and they sound worse. One of them even smells like cheap air freshener. We have to put a stop to this.”
I thrust a beer his way. He thanked me, took a slow sip, and replied calmly that a proliferation of Muirs was surprisingly common. Speaking in the kindest tone imaginable, he explained that he not only tolerated, but even provided friendly encouragement to these bogus fake Muirs wherever he might encounter them.
Lee’s reply was so humane and compassionate that I paused momentarily before returning to my senses. “Nope, no, no, no, no, nope,” I said. “Absolutely not. We are not going to encourage this kind of thing. This party isn’t big enough for more than one fake Muir. Come with me.”
I coaxed Lee up, and into the reception we went, where we found both of the fraudulent fake Muirs waiting, as instructed, by the ale tub. Then I whistled loudly to draw the attention of the sixty or so people at the party.
“It is intolerable to have three guys walking around acting like Muir,” I declared. “We’ll settle this hot mess right now. We’re going to have a Muir-off. Side betting is allowed, but no assisting of any Muir will be permitted. The two losers must never again pretend to be a fake John Muir.”
I popped open another brew and began peppering the men with questions. “In 1866, you saw your first piece of writing published. What was its title?” I asked.
“The tang end of a file,” corrected Lee, modestly.
“The tang end of a file is correct,” I confirmed. Switching my beer to my left hand in order to rest my right hand on Lee’s shoulder, I announced the verdict. “I hereby declare victorious the only guy at this party who both stabbed himself in the eye with the tang end of a file and also knows what the hell the tang end of a file is. This, my friends, is the one-and-only true, original, authentic, genuine real fake John Muir.”
There followed an enthusiastic round of applause. Lee smiled graciously, without a hint of condescension. “You there, Fat Bastard and Swashbuckling Crossdresser,” I addressed the pair of impostor fakes, “relinquish your beards.”
The two men sheepishly removed their fake beards—which weren’t even glued on but, rather, were strapped to their faces with cheap elastic cords—and, with an air of genuine solemnity, laid them down on the table. I handed each of them a beer and gave each a consoling slap on the back, which triggered a second round of applause. The buccaneer Muir retreated honorably and soon after returned to the party dressed like an English professor. The broguey Muir became quite drunk, strapped his fake beard back on, and claimed to be the nature writer John Burroughs.
I realize that it is easier to rag on a Chautauquan than to be one, which is why I am a reclusive humor writer and not a public performer of “living history.” But I am in sympathy with all those fake Muirs out there. And the counterfeit Thoreaus, Tubmans, and Twains, too, the impostor Jeffersons, Stowes, and Lincolns, and the imitation Communist Woody Guthries—even the do-ragged, chainsaw bear-sculpting libertarian Ben Franklins. Given that most of us spend a fair amount of energy pretending to be somebody we aren’t, we might as well aim high. We could do worse than to emulate the real Muir, who kept the Wal-Marts out of Yosemite Valley. So, Johnny, here’s a pint of Sierra Nevada in the air to the hope that we can all be a wee bittie more like you.
Mike, who is Professor of Literature and Environment and University Foundation Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, is co-founder and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). He is the recipient of Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award, the Western Literature Association Frederick Manfred Award for Creative Writing, the Willa Pilla Award for Humor Writing. When he isn’t writing, Mike enjoys activist and stewardship work, native plant gardening, bucking stovewood, playing blues harmonica, sipping sour mash, cursing at baseball on the radio, and walking at least 1,000 miles each year in the hills and canyons surrounding his desert home.