- Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp
Readers of Leslie Paris's Children's Nature should be warned — this book may bring on a flood of wistful or painful memories of one's own experiences — or lack thereof — at summer camp. Although Paris's study ends in 1940, before many of today's adults attended camp, some former campers will no doubt smile at the words that open the book, of a young boy asked if he had enjoyed his vacation: "I wish I were to begin the summer all over again tomorrow A.M." If Children's Nature produces nostalgia, however, it also critiques it as one of the many cultural consequences of the camping movement. Paris explores the tension between modernity and tradition that shaped the camping industry and demonstrates how summer camps, campers, and camp leaders both reflected and shaped American culture in crucial ways, leaving a complex legacy of positive and negative consequences.
Children's Nature comprises seven chapters in two parts. The first four chapters focus on the expansion of the camping industry in the late nineteenth century, explore how campers' families chose their camps, and reveal campers' diverse experiences. The last three chapters examine how camp leaders and campers responded to and influenced the issues of their day, including commercialism, race politics, and parenting. Paris's sources include camp directors' memoirs and publications, campers' diaries, letters, and testimonials, and records from hundreds of camps located mainly in the Northeastern United States. Her study includes private and charity-run camps, religious camps, single-sex and co-ed camps, racially segregated camps, and organizational camps. From such a broad and deep pool of diverse resources, Paris weaves a well-focused analysis of the cultural consequences of children's forays into the woods.
Camps may have been located in "the wilderness," but culturally they were anything but isolated. Paris argues the camp movement developed alongside the late-nineteenth-century critique of urbanization and Americans' preoccupation with a largely imagined rural pioneering past. Camping was idealized as an "antidote to city life" for everyone, not just for young people (p. 19). Paris demonstrates how camp leaders reconciled their anti-modernist appreciation of nature with emerging theories about children's development. For example, when Ernest Balch established Camp Chocorua on the shores of New Hampshire's Lake Squam in the 1880s, he envisioned a rugged retreat where boys would experience the democratizing and invigorating effects of pioneer life. At the same time, his campers' days were strictly regimented and included activities designed to teach them about capitalism, credit, and the value of work (p. 34). Paris examines how, throughout the twentieth century, camp leaders like Balch struggled to combine the image of "authentic" wilderness camping with parents' requests for useful skills, gender-appropriate activities, and modern amenities (like indoor plumbing). Camps were purposefully separated from modern life, and yet, Paris reveals, they were the products and the perpetuators of contemporary cultural ideas. [End Page 267]
Children's Nature is strongest when it analyses the ritual and routine of daily camp life. Paris mines the minute details of camp experience to demonstrate how camp directors fashioned "camp community" (p. 96). While Paris argues that camps and campers were divided along religious, ethnic, gender, and class lines, she also demonstrates persuasively how camp activities often muted these differences. The journey to camp, the potential of homesickness, the relationship between new and returning campers, the nicknames, the tent- or bunkmates, the badges or medals for achievements, the pageants and campfire songs, and the memories at summer's end — these common experiences became part of a mass camp culture. As the number and size of camps grew over the first half of the twentieth century, children from diverse backgrounds had more and more similar experiences on their summer vacations.
Paris's argument that children exerted extraordinary agency at camp is less persuasive. Camp was a child-dominated space where children socialized mostly with others their own age. Paris claims that the age hierarchy of most...