By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Who was Sidney Lanier? Meet the lake’s namesake and other historical Southern figures via living history theater
06032022 CHAUTAUQUA 1.jpg
Kevin Moxley rehearses a performance as the Southern poet Sidney Lanier Thursday, May 26, 2022, at the Northeast Georgia History Center. Moxley's performance is part of the history center's Summer Chautauqua Series exploring the lives of Southern writers Lanier, Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O'Connor. - photo by Scott Rogers
Summer Chautauqua Series: Southern Writers

When: 7-8 p.m. June 14, July 12 and Aug. 9

Where: Northeast Georgia History Center, 322 Academy St. NE, Gainesville

How much: $5 at the door, free for members

More info: negahc.org/events

Longtime resident or short-term visitor, one hardly knows Hall County apart from its arguably best and most distinguishable feature, Lake Sidney Lanier.

Behind the reservoir’s namesake stands the 19th century poet, musician and Confederate soldier born in Macon. 

His ballad “Song of the Chattahoochee,” an ode to the river flowing “out of the hills of Habersham and down through the valleys of Hall,” secured his legacy’s immortality as the man-made lake was named in his honor upon its filling in 1956.

Curious minds interested in a more close-up snapshot of Lanier’s life can soon take a look through the viewfinder as the Northeast Georgia History Center’s Summer Chautauqua Series returns for the fifth time to showcase prolific figures from the past. Chautauqua references a style of traveling shows popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which combined education and entertainment.

Portrayed by living history interpreter Kevin Moxley, Lanier begins the series Tuesday, June 14, with a monologue in the history center’s founders hall. 

There, guests will become cordially acquainted with Lanier’s work in the fields of law, education and the arts, his mournful recounts of the Civil War and the corruptive effects of materialism in the wake of the South’s Reconstruction, and his unequivocal love for music and poetry.

“(Lanier) has quite the resume,” said Marie Bartlett, director of the Ada Mae Ivester Education Center at the history center. “He really combined music and poetry and thought that there was a very large connection between the two — the musicality of words and prose and rhythm and speech. Those were two of his great loves, and he very much wanted them to work in harmony.”

According to Bartlett, guests are guaranteed to feel as though they’ve met Lanier himself on a personal level.

“I think that’s one of the great things about living history, especially first-person interpretation living history — it kind of breaks down that barrier between you and the idea of this great, historical superhuman and really makes it (seem like) it’s a real person who lived and loved and struggled just like everybody else,” Bartlett said.

06032022 CHAUTAUQUA 3.jpg
Kevin Moxley rehearses a performance as the Southern poet Sidney Lanier Thursday, May 26, 2022, with Director of the Ada Mae Ivester Education Center Marie Bartlett at the Northeast Georgia History Center. Moxley's performance is part of the history center's Summer Chautauqua Series exploring the lives of Southern writers Lanier, Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O'Connor. - photo by Scott Rogers

For Moxley, who researched and wrote the script for Lanier’s Chautauqua monologue, what’s particularly humanizing about Lanier’s life is the trajectory of it, with which Moxley finds common ground.

“As a man from the South who was very interested in art … he kind of had to hop around a little bit and see what would work and how he could support his family — he tried out being a lawyer, tried out being a tutor, tried out playing with the symphony orchestra for a while,” Moxley said. “For me, that’s been a lot of my career, finding a way to make art work for me and being able to do art as a career in a similar way that (Lanier) grapples with in a lot of his writing.”

Music, according to Moxley’s research and Lanier’s own prose, was the latter’s true passion; writing, however, was how he paid the bills.

“He kind of fell into writing because he felt that was where he could make a career,” Moxley said. 

Having grown up in Mountain Rest, South Carolina, just across the state line from Georgia’s Rabun County, Moxley’s biggest takeaways from Lanier is “what I think most people’s are: It comes down to loving the land and loving the love.”

“‘Music is harmony, harmony is love, love is God,’” Moxley said, quoting the Chautauqua script. “I think that is what I’m taking away from this whole experience — tracing those beauties that we need to be human.”

Alongside Lanier, the series also shines a spotlight on Southern writers Zora Neale Hurston, portrayed by Chiara Richardson on July 12, and Flannery O’Connor, portrayed by Mallory Ivy Aug. 9.

Following their 20-minute monologues, each of the actors will host a brief Q-and-A session in character and another as themselves, allowing guests to seek answers to their pressing questions about Southern literature.

“This is museum theater — it’s fun for people who like history, it’s fun for people who like theater, it’s fun for people who enjoy literature. I think if you enjoy any of those three, you will definitely enjoy our Chautauqua series,” Bartlett said. “It’s supposed to be fun and entertaining, but also thought-provoking and have people think about these people in a way that maybe they haven’t before and to put a person with history instead of just a name or a book. There’s a person behind it.”

06032022 CHAUTAUQUA 2.jpg
Kevin Moxley rehearses a performance as the Southern poet Sidney Lanier Thursday, May 26, 2022, at the Northeast Georgia History Center. Moxley's performance is part of the history center's Summer Chautauqua Series exploring the lives of Southern writers Lanier, Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O'Connor. - photo by Scott Rogers