Heading Out. A History of American Camping

Young, Terence
Anzahl Seiten
382 S.
€ 26,94
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Olaf Stieglitz, Historisches Institut, Universität zu Köln

In November 1921, the fitness entrepreneur Bernarr Macfadden used the pages of his own magazine, Physical Culture, to promote the nexus between nature and advanced technology. “The automobile is becoming a tremendous factor in health-building,” he wrote, because “it takes you out-of-doors. It allows you to commune with nature. It takes you away from the city streets, the smoke and devitalizing atmosphere associated with thickly populated communities. […] automobiling helps to a very great extent in bringing one back to natural law.”[1] The article was heavily illustrated, and so readers could see how an ordinary car was transformed into a well-equipped camping vehicle including an almost full-sized twin bed.

Macfadden’s enthusiasm about the recreational opportunities offered by modern technology nicely reflects the argumentation of Terence Young’s book Heading Out. As he amply demonstrates, camping has been an increasingly popular leisure pursuit across the United States since the end of the Civil War, and this pastime activity was always part of complex and ambivalent negotiations about notions of nature and technology, civilization and wilderness, individual and mass society. Not designed as a full, comprehensive history of American camping, Young instead narrates its development with the help of what he calls vignettes, specific episodes with a “focus on a particular camping mode during a period when that mode’s development, impact, and elements were in flux” (p. 18). In each of the seven chapters reaching from the 1870s into the 1970s, Young zeros in on the life of individuals who either shaped or transformed camping through writing about it, designing new equipment, or representing campers’ interests in public offices. Based on a wide variety of different primary sources – letters, reports, diaries, advertisements, how-to manuals, policy statements – Heading Out promises to combine a survey on the history of American camping with in-depth perspectives on crucial moments during that development.

Young starts his narrative with the launch of recreational camping during the summers of 1869 and 1870. Triggered by the publication of Adventures in the Wilderness, a book authored by the Congregationalist minister William H. H. Murray, thousands of city-dwellers from the Northeast of the United States headed out to the Adirondack Mountains. Chapters one and two describe this original ‘rush’ and its lasting impact mainly through the eyes of those who participated in it, like historian Frederick Jackson Turner or writer Mary Bradshaw Richards. During this pre-automobile era, camping was largely a white, upper-middle-class affair, but a fast-growing number of both general and specialized publications popularized outdoor travelling by the beginning of the 20th century. Chapter three turns to “the appearance of the single most significant technological innovation in the history of camping – the inexpensive automobile” (p. 19). Young outlines not only how cars changed camping equipment and camping infrastructure profoundly, he also stresses how experiencing the outdoors altered through motor-trailing by analyzing the personal accounts of two continent-crossing campers. The negative consequences of the automobile’s popularity for heading out form the center of chapter four. By the 1920s, environmental damage caused by millions of campers became a general concern, and Young underlines the important role of E. P. Meinecke, an expert on forestry who reported on the deterioration of California’s natural parks and later on designed a standard auto campground plan adopted almost universally across the United States. While the automobile certainly democratized camping experience, still not everybody was welcome on American campgrounds, and especially southern national parks remained racially segregated. Chapter five tells the story of William Trent Jr., a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Black Cabinet’ during the 1930s, who fought for opening national park campgrounds for African Americans. The remaining chapters deal with post-World War II developments. Young first discusses trailer camping during the 1950s, the rise of recreational vehicles (RV) as the most convenient and most popular way of ‘Discovering America’. Against the backdrop of Cold War anxieties, even the US-State Department cooperated with automobile companies and sponsored trailer-camping trips through the country for foreign diplomats. Chapter seven finally is devoted to long-distance trails and backpacking as key trends of the 1960s and 1970s, and Young elaborates on that by focusing on the Pacific Crest Trail, established in 1968 and ultimately, since the early 1990s, stretching from the Mexican border to Canada.

In order to make his approach of mixing one hundred years of US camping history with closer readings of pivotal moments and actors of that story work, Young structured his book along three closely related key lines of analysis reappearing in each chapter. A first one discusses camping’s relationship to notions of modernity and modernization, and Young frequently underscores the ambivalences between camping as an anti-modern, back-to-nature reflex that nevertheless rested on and was part of manifold modernizing processes. A second perspective structuring Young’s readings is his understanding of camping as a sort of pilgrimage, as an attempt in seeking spiritual renewal in and through nature. Individual parts of Heading Out interpret this almost religious conception of the outdoors in relation to the Americanness of the visited places, because campers often wanted to reinforce their “sense of belonging, especially of being an American. Many returning campers felt closer to the nation for the experience” (p. 12). Third, Young discusses the nexus between camping and advancing technology, between the idea of ‘roughing it’ on the one hand and doing that with increasing comfort and safety on the other. In these parts of the book, the very material aspects of heading out move to the center of attention.

With Heading Out, Terence Young demonstrates that histories of leisure time activities such as camping offer material for serious scholarship. Still, the book cannot fully satisfy expectations, and that is mainly because it often lacks in-depth historical context. Using vignettes to invigorate the narrative certainly makes for a good read but embedding them more thoroughly into available scholarship would have been enriching in terms of analysis. William Trent Jr.’s struggle for integrated campgrounds during the 1930s, for instance, might have been more convincingly discussed as part of the long civil rights movement; the State Department’s interest in camping after 1945 only makes sense within deeper reflections on the Cold War’s home front and the complex issues of Americanness during these times. On a somewhat different level, more conceptual understandings of terms such as gender or race might have been helpful as well. Young successfully integrates the perspectives of women and people of color into his narrative but reflections on the history of camping as, for a very long time, a history of whiteness structured along male ideas such as ‘roughing it’ are mostly missing – despite the fact that the three analytic guidelines of modernization, pilgrimage, and technology could have supported such a reading perfectly.

Heading Out is a well-written and often insightful history of camping in the United States. Although not without weaknesses it offers valuable groundwork and a lot of food for thought for future scholarship, and it should find its place on the reading lists for classes on North American social and cultural history emphasizing the relationships between leisure time activities and overall cultural trends.

[1] Bernarr Macfadden, Automobiling as a Health Builder, in: Physical Culture, November 1921, pp. 40–41, 130, here p. 40.

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