Last Saturday, backdropped by the Miller Bell Tower and surrounded by a flock of literary-minded Chautauquans, Director of Literary Arts Atom Atkinson gave Vice President and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education Matt Ewalt a gift.
Make that four gifts.
During the Bryant Day ceremony — an event that marks the official beginning of the new reading year for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle — Atkinson and Ewalt unveiled four 2020 CLSC books after a brief service of songs and call and response. Named in honor of William Cullen Bryant and his support for the CLSC, the annual exercises began with a poem written by Grace Livingston Hill-Lutz and read by Alumni Association of the CLSC President Dick Karslake.
“Fling wide your music, deep-toned bell, / From out your woodland tower!” Karslake read. “Ring, clear, sweet bell, the story tell! / Proclaim the opening hour.”
Next, the group sang “From Age to Age They Gather” to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and participated in a call and response led by Ewalt.
“It is a good book which is opened with expectation and closed with profit,” Chautauquans said, reading their prescribed lines from their programs.
“All that humankind has done, thought, gained or been, is lying, as in magic preservation, in the pages of books,” Ewalt read. “They are our chosen possessions.”
Finally, after singing a short hymn to the tune of “My Country Tis of Thee” along with those gathered, Atkinson and Ewalt moved forward with the unwrapping reveal.
“Do I open the card in front of everyone?” Ewalt asked.
Inside was the CLSC’s 2020 reading year theme: “This Land” — an exploration of the “many resonances” of this land and other lands in the tradition of environmental writing, immigrant or refugee narratives, geopolitics and beyond.
“From nation-states to natural landscapes, from borderlands to homelands, our social and scientific understandings of land have literary significance that spans culture and era,” Ewalt read.
“I think it’s a train set,” one Chautauquan said, as Ewalt peeled away the colorful wrapping paper from the first book of the 2020 CLSC season. His efforts uncovered The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer, an anthropologist and professor. Treuer, who is Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation, will present his comprehensive book of American Indian history at Chautauqua Institution on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, during Week Eight, “Reframing the Constitution.”
“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is the essential, intimate story of a resilient people in a transformative era,” Atkinson said.
The next gift was In the Country of Women, a memoir by Susan Straight, that Atkinson described as “a valuable social history and a personal narrative that reads like a love song to America and indomitable women.” The multiracial and transnational account of a sprawling family tree is a tribute to the Straights’ forebears, as well as a piece of history for her daughters. The author will present on Thursday, July 30, 2020, during Week Five, “The Women’s Vote Centennial and Beyond.”
The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives was Atkinson’s third present to Ewalt — a collection of essays from 19 refugee writers, including one from 2018 CLSC author Kao Kalia Yang, edited by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, himself a refugee. Proceeds from sales of the book support the International Rescue Committee.
Atkinson called the book “a powerful dispatch from the individual lives from behind current headlines,” that imagines trauma, identity and home in the face of a humanitarian crisis.” Nguyen will give his CLSC Author Presentation on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020, during Week Nine, “The Future We Want, the World We Need: Collective Action for Tomorrow’s Challenges,” a week in partnership with the United Nations Foundation.
The final CLSC edition revealed at Bryant Day was We Cast a Shadow, a satirical novel by Maurice Carlos Ruffin about race and a father’s love for his biracial son. Ruffin will present on Thursday, Aug. 14, 2020, during Week Seven, “The Science of Us.”
“This electrifying, hallucinatory novel is at once a keen satire of surviving racism in America and a profoundly moving family story,” said Atkinson, comparing Ruffin’s work to Ralph Ellison, Franz Kafka and Vladimir Nabokov.
“There’s nothing more in the bag,” Ewalt said as the ceremony concluded. And with that, CLSC Class of 2019 graduates and alumni lined up to reach up and pull the rope that would ring the bell that overlooked Bryant Day.
Atkinson, a member of the CLSC Class of 2019, took part in the storied tradition.
“It was a nice reminder at the end of the season that I did graduate this year and took part in one of the most important traditions there is at Chautauqua,” they said. “It can be easy to forget that inside a season as soon as Recognition Day is over, because I’m back at work. But this was a nice reminder.”