|A Review of
The Rise of the American Summer Camp.
Hardback: NYU Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Chris Enstad.
I, more or less, grew up at a church camp. Starting in third grade you could find me up on the North Shore of Lake Superior at the church camp my congregation had the foresight to organize and build in the 1950’s. By the time I began attending “our” camp it was already well-established with cabins, a lodge, a chapel, and traditions going back decades. Every camper knew that the “biffies” stunk; but some stunk more than others. We knew that the “cool” kids figured out how to sneak out at night to meet a camper of the opposite sex at “the Rock” presumably to sit together scared of being discovered but, of course, the stories became embellished by morning. There were ghost stories and disappearing camper stories. Underneath it all we developed a deeper relationship with each other and, through twice-a-day chapel and daily Bible study, with God. I was the second generation of my family to attend that camp and it is amazing to know that there are third, fourth, and fifth generation campers up there as I write this.
It’s hard for me to imagine that as early as the late nineteenth century there was no such thing as children with leisure time. With the rise of urban life on the East coast came a desire to hold on to the pioneering, outdoor spirit of the recent American past. In Children’s Nature: the Rise of the American Summer Camp, Leslie Paris, Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, has written a part-historical, part-anthropological study of this phenomenon. In doing so, Dr. Paris gives great insight into how summer camping became such an important part of so many people’s lives and, indeed, American culture itself.
While summer camps have popped up in nearly every corner of America, from California’s beach camps to the originals in upstate New York, Dr. Paris’ work focuses primarily on the experiences of the East Coast adults, youth, and camp directors who formed the very first camps. She dives deep into letters home, camp records and other recorded history in an attempt to make that time come alive. It is intriguing to have a peek into the time before camps, and their attendant traditions, existed. How does one persuade a parent to let their child leave home for up to ten weeks of living in nature? How did camps get, and stay, established? How did the establishment of summer camping reinforce the idea of childhood as a time set apart (although one might argue that idea is on its way out for better or worse)?
The rise of the summer camp, according to Paris, is a textbook example of how social networking worked before the Internet. Parents were assured that sending their child away was an extension of the community they were used to (indeed most of the first camps were organized around religious or socioeconomic similarities), and word of mouth meant that camp attendance began to rise as positive, and progressive, experiences began to build.
Paris does bring into question, without necessarily resolving the issue, whether camping aids and abets cultural intolerance. She wonders whether camping was a kind of nature tourism for city kids. She also notes the rise of the professional camp director and the accreditation process that marked the maturing of the camping industry.
Through it all, Paris keeps coming back to the kids. Cultural changes in how we view the years between childhood and maturity, or adolescence, has led to a rise in how much more power young people wield than in previous eras. In Paris’ work the summer camp becomes, then, one of the prime locations for the development of young adults by building skills and relationships while somewhat sheltered from the real world. I know that my camping experiences formed a great deal of who I am today; indeed, my two best friends to this day were at camp with me 28 years ago. For most people who had positive camping experiences as young children, those experiences resonate in a myriad of ways today. Paris’ thorough history and study do much to flesh out this unique phenomenon.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com