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  • The Pleasures of Degeneration:Climate, Race, and the Origins of the Global Tourist South in the Americas
  • Catherine Cocks (bio)

Today, one of the iconic images of vacation is a broad, sandy beach framed by palms and lapped by azure tropical waters. For many, including some historians of tourism, the attractiveness of hot-weather resorts confirms a natural human hedonism1—a belief constantly reinforced by resort and cruise advertisements. But places with warm climates did not attract many tourists before 1900, and not merely for lack of infrastructure and air conditioning.2 Far from reflecting human nature, contemporary promotional materials for such resorts still bear the signs of the twentieth-century rearticulation of a venerable climatic determinism that linked warm climates to ill-health and backward, dark-skinned peoples. This rearticulation was instrumental in the emergence of places such as Florida, Southern California, Mexico, and the Caribbean as vacation destinations between 1880 and 1940.3 Marketing "the tropics" as an elixir of horticultural fertility and the racial youthfulness attributed to the locals, travel businesses portrayed leisure as a natural resource instead of a social privilege. In doing so, they transformed climatic determinism from a pillar of white supremacy into a vehicle for reimagining the relationship between whites, the tropical environment, and nonwhite peoples in a positive light.

This transformation relied upon and contributed to a shift toward romanticism in the popular conceptualization of both race [End Page 215] and nature. The romantic perspective—rooted in the eighteenth-century assertion of particularity, emotion, and nature against Enlightenment universalism, rationalism, and civilization—emphasized the spiritual importance of human interaction with untrammeled nature and celebrated nonwhites for their greater intimacy with the natural world—an intimacy rendered in garden-variety white supremacy as a primitive lack of mastery over both self and the environment. For early-twentieth-century bohemians and avant-garde artists, nonwhites exemplified humanity free of the psychic and social deformities imposed by civilization. Similarly, the tropics represented nature in its most fertile and giving aspect, places where people enjoyed perfect well-being without having to labor, as they had long ago in Eden.4 Although by no means staffed by cultural radicals, the tourist industry used such romantic attitudes to sell tropical cruises, tours, and resorts. This reversal of the valence of climatic determinism resonated with the cultural claims of many antiracist and anticolonial movements at the time and helped to popularize cultural pluralism.5 At the same time, it reinforced and elaborated on a centuries-old view of the American tropics as a cornucopia at the service of northerners, sustaining the region's history of environmental and economic spoliation.

As will already be obvious, I do not use the tropics in the scientific sense of "located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn," or 23º26'22" north and south of the equator. Instead, I follow the usage of tourist entrepreneurs and tourists, who at times used the term to refer to any climate warmer than those of the northeastern and midwestern United States or northwestern Europe. Although writers also often distinguished between Mediterranean, semitropical or subtropical, and tropical zones, they attributed the same kinds of racial characteristics to people living in all three and advertised the pleasures of a visit to them with similar imagery—palm trees, endless sunshine, abundant flowers and fruit, and broad, sandy beaches. The very ubiquity of these attractions in places as different as Southern California and Jamaica signals the continuity and the transformation of ideas about climate, geography, and human nature that I analyze in this essay.

White Man's Grave6

In a fable set in the 1850s and published in the U.S. magazine Overland Monthly in 1870, two young white American men sail from New York for the California goldfields. As they wait for canoes to take [End Page 216] them across the Isthmus of Panama, one falls ill with "Isthmus fever," and a young mixed-race woman lovingly tends to him. Although her care preserves the man's life, it leads to a fate worse than death: he decides to stay in Panama with her. "It was a regular Arcadia that he had contrived in his imagination," sighs...


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pp. 215-235
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