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Posted January 4, 2002
I speak as both an academic and general reader when I say that Marguerite S. Shaffer¿s See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940, is a ¿must-read¿ for anyone interested in travel, tourism, history, nature, marketing, and American culture in general. In December, I received Shaffer¿s book as a gift right before I went home for winter break ¿ a time when most college students like myself would prefer not to even look at anything that resembles a textbook. However, I found that once embarking on the engaging text, I was hard-pressed to stop! See America First opens with a passage straight out of a sentimental movie: it is the spring of 1892, and Methodist minister Stephen Merritt is leaving his home in New York City to venture across the country. He writes of his anticipation that he will ¿see the land (he) fondly call(s) (his) own¿ (1) on the tour to Alaska and California. Each chapter is introduced in an equally engaging manner, and sheds light on general themes. Shaffer¿s work is well-organized as it chronicles western tourism after the Civil War ¿ as the nation tried to bind itself together after a divisive four-year struggle at the same time that the seemingly boundless west was rapidly finishing its settlement. As a culture, the nation wanted to create for itself a type of heritage that older European countries could proclaim ¿ but remain unique in its identity. By connecting the emerging consumer culture in the United States with the marketing ¿national tourism,¿ Shaffer presents a substantiated argument that the shared national identity of America and its values were actually inspired by popular Western mythology. The actual See America First movement thus serves as the bulk of her exhaustively researched work. We learn of the developments in transportation, technology, and communication that the government endorsed in an effort to reach its goal. However, Shaffer also affirms that this was not a ¿one-sided¿ lecture by commercialism ¿ it was the foundation for a larger dialogue of values and ideals. As a history and American studies major, I can¿t help but appreciate the fact that I now know how these ¿attractions¿ got their birth ¿ and how the railroad, hotels, and leisure culture worked together to symbolize the ideal America. On an academic note, Shaffer¿s bibliography is very extensive ¿ which is useful to anyone who would like to independently follow up on a particular aspect of her original research. Of course, there are also numerous visual features including postcards, photos, and advertisements (¿The Call of the Mountains!¿Vacations in Glacier National Park¿ proclaimed one that most readily comes to my mind), all of which served as a way for me to connect with those who enjoyed the national parks and west long before I did. Personally, that is the best part of See America First: it conjured up fond memories of my own trips out west with my family. Even though I was a youth, I remember a powerful sense of beauty, purity, and idealism as we spent time at Glacier, Yellowstone, and other National Parks. On first reading, I flew through See America First too quickly, so I am now re-reading it just for enjoyment and additional nostalgia ¿ and I am also making plans with my family to take another two-week tour this summer. I look forward to future books by Shaffer!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 6, 2001
Gasoline prices falling. The automobile industry urging us to 'Keep America Rolling.' Chambers of Commerce and tourist bureaus asking us to do our patriotic duty: travel. The national parks opening their gates for free, offering a glimpse of the sublime in service of communal 'healing.' The aftermath of September 11? Yes, but as Marguerite S. Shaffer shows us in See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2001), we¿ve been down this road before. Shaffer chronicles the rise of what she calls 'national tourism' at the turn of the 20th century, in which touring was characterized as not only a ritual of American citizenship but also a form of 'virtuous consumption' (39), the perfect melding of patriotism and commercial progress. In the wake of the Civil War, travel was promoted as a means of witnessing the unfolding of a flourishing, united nation: by 'consuming' the national narrative through historical landmarks and the spectacle of nature, tourists were able to participate in a larger dialogue about personal and public memory (e.g., through scrapbooks and journals), individual and national identity. Of course, these patriotic questers required an America worthy of their efforts. Enter the See America First movement, which Shaffer describes as a 'Western booster campaign' whose purpose was to establish the West as the geographical, commercial, and political equal of the Northeastern United States while simultaneously promoting the 'ideal' West as the 'true' America. See America First exploited the existing ideological infrastructure of Manifest Destiny to create a 'canon' of American tourist attractions that embodied a distinct national mythology based on such nostalgic images as untamed nature, noble savages, and small-town life. Sustaining this mythology, however, required a massive physical infrastructure of roads, hotels, and tourist attractions--all heavily subsidized by boosters and government officials. Thus the marketing of the American West reified a cultural meaning of tourism that depended as much on an expansive rhetoric of commercialism as an expansive body of land. Like all good histories, See America First not only reveals a vivid past but brings its themes to bear on our own urgent and fraught present. Two examples are particularly worthy of mention. First, Shaffer observes that in the unprecedented prosperity of the post-World War II era, tourism became less a patriotic rite of passage than 'the ultimate quest for self-indulgent individual pleasure and hedonistic personal freedom in a culture of mass consumption that revolved around spectacle, fantasy, and desire' (320). These post-September 11 days represent the inverse of that situation: a lengthy period of economic expansion has come to an abrupt and painful end, and travel is being promoted as an antidote to the fear and unease caused by the terrorist attacks and a patriotic defense of 'our way of life.' Second, this re-emergence of national tourism as a form of virtuous consumption offers us a cautionary tale. For as Shaffer argues, 'mobile citizenship . . . redefined political rights in consumer terms, celebrating seeing over speaking, purchasing over voting, and traveling over participating' (6). Given the recent bailout of the travel and tourism industry, the voluntary forfeiture of civil liberties in the name of the war on terrorism, and the daily exhortations to keep the world free for democracy by spending, spending, spending . . . this argument is as timely as it is original. See America First is an academic book, but general readers should not be deterred. Meticulously researched, engagingly written, and generously illustrated with old photographs, postcards, and travel brochures, it should satisfy aWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.