Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lawrence Culver's "The Frontier of Leisure"

Lawrence Culver teaches in the History Department at Utah State University. He is currently a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig-Maximillians University in Munich, Germany. In 2005, he received the Rachel Carson Prize for best dissertation in Environmental History.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America, and reported the following:
The Frontier of Leisure explores the history of tourism, resorts, and recreation in Southern California, how this leisure culture shaped the development of the region, and in turn influenced American suburbia after World War II. Page 99 examines one local resort, Santa Catalina Island. In the 1920s and 1930s Catalina was one of the most popular tourist destinations in California. Page 99 discusses Catalina in the 1890s, when it first emerged as a summer resort. On this page, I describe the most common form of tourist housing at Catalina:
Tent cabins, with plank floors and canvas walls stretched over wooden frames, provided shelter for many vacationers, whether they built their own on lots they bought or leased, or rented tents in the Santa Catalina Island Company’s tent-cabin village. Some such “cabins” could be relatively elaborate. One tourist, writing in August 1898, bragged that her abode was “one of the most picturesque here,” with a view of “the whole bay, the town, and the mountains.”
In some ways, the most striking thing about this resort is how different it is from tourism in our own era. High-end resorts now try to out-“luxe” each other, and visitors rush from hiking to yoga to a day spa while still tethered to their daily work routine via a smartphone. The idea of spending summer in a tent sounds both spartan and stultifying. Yet, even in this seemingly quaint era, there are hints of changes to come in Catalina’s only town, Avalon:
In the summers of the 1890s, Avalon was often a place dominated by mothers and children. Husbands remained on the mainland to work, but spent weekends in the cooler, relaxed atmosphere of Catalina. In this regard, Catalina portended the stereotypical suburban family of the 1950s, with fathers traveling to work elsewhere and mothers remaining at home with their children. This arrangement divided spouses but offered a remarkable degree of autonomy to adolescents and young adults who accompanied parents or friends to the island.
At Catalina, restricted to the wealthy and white, teenagers and young adults found a remarkable degree of freedom. They roamed all over the island long after their parents had gone to bed. They ventured to places such as Lover’s Cove, hinting at amorous adventures forbidden on the mainland, but possible at Catalina. In this sense, tourism, whether in 1898 or 2010, offers an escape from the ordinary. Catalina’s Victorian tourists would have been scandalized by a tourism slogan like “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Yet everyone travels to escape everyday life, even if only briefly.

In the case of The Frontier of Leisure, the “Page 99 Test” illustrates that tourism is a lens through which we can view cultural and social change. Catalina offered more freedom to young people, but future resorts would welcome a far more diverse clientele, from African Americans to gay and lesbian tourists, and elements of Southern California’s leisure culture, from ranch houses to backyard swimming pools and residential golf communities, would appear across the U.S. We may try to get away from it all, but tourism’s evolution reflects changes not only in our leisured life, but in our everyday lives as well.
Learn more about The Frontier of Leisure at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue