A Shifting Shore: Locals, Outsiders, and the Transformation of a French Fishing Town.
Alice Garner introduces her Shifting Shore with a discussion of the seaside as a constructed and contested place. In the nineteenth century, her subject, the French Atlantic Bassin d'Arcachon--a collection of beaches, a set of high dunes, a large salt water marsh surrounding agricultural land, and its associated fishing community--became the object of utopian plans, romantic idealizations, economic profits, and government inquiries. By the end of the century, tourism, which triumphs over the place and claims of traditional and commercial fishing on the Basin had formed an entire zone principally shaped for tourists, bathers, sun gazers, and strollers.
A contribution to the history of leisure, recreation, and tourism, Shifting Shore offers a sequel to Alain Corbin's The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World. For the period 1750 to 1840 in Western Europe, Corbin delineates the transformation of the seaside from being a repugnant, desolate, infertile, and uninhabitable ground into a space organized for pleasure, health, recreation, relaxation, and socialization, and worthy of communing with self and nature. With reference to the fate of a single basin from 1830 to 1900, Garner shows the encroachment on the bay of expanded commerce, increased tourism, improved transportation, and the intervention of local and state government.
Describing what Henri Lefebvre calls "living space," Garner seeks to reconstruct the story of "how various floating worlds understood each other and the sea and the shore that supported or lured them." Her effort to do this is sustained by buoyant prose and the seining of a wide array of sources, which include maps, hydrographic and maritime reports, agricultural surveys, engineering, surveying and government reports, and travelers' descriptions, along with letters, ex-votos, poetry, and postcards.
Shifting Shore is not a historical narrative. It derives its internal cogency from its strict focus on the French Atlantic Bassin d'Arcachon as contested space. The bay's immense salty marsh, which has an extreme tidal variance from 60 to 150 square miles, raised from the beginning of the century varying assessments of its agricultural potential and acrimony over its boundaries and ownership. Its shifting channels within the bay and perilous passes to the open sea provoked disputes over the efficacy of human engineering. A central and ongoing struggle pivoted on the use of its beaches, which pitted bathers and sightseers, who idealized them, against local fishermen, who utilized them as workshops and storage area for their boats, gear, and nets.
Tourists, in the form of bathers, cure takers, and beach combers from nearby Bordeaux, only forty miles away, became the greatest of determining outside forces. They promised profits to the middle class and ever-needed money to the local population. A dramatic increase of tourist traffic occurred in 1841 with the arrival of the railroad at La Teste, located midway on the south side of the Basin. A year of considerable development in the Basin, 1841 also was of significance in transportation history, with the appearance of "the first national railway timetable in Britain, the first Atlantic steamship service, the creation of Wells Fargo (later American Express), and the first Thomas Cook tour." In combination with development of real estate and commercial fishing, tourism transformed Arcachon, a traditional fishing village just down the bay from La Teste, into a popular seaside resort. Incorporated in 1857 as an independent town, Arcachon developed beaches, guest residences, wharves, and a casino to match.
Garner's most vivid treatments focus on the 1830s and 1840s. Saint Simonian planners proposed extensive commercial canals in the Basin area and permanent channels through the shifting sands of its marshy bay. Local village women rolled up their skirts, and, baring their legs, they carried on their shoulders newly-arrived train passengers from the marshy foreshore, through the shallows, to the boats that rowed them to their lodging.
Garner depicts fishermen who, not for love of sailing but money, left the bay for the sea. They were required to thread their small boats (chaloupes of six oars and a couple sails) through the perilous breakers on their way out to and back from the sea, especially during storm season. In one tragic shipwreck, referred to as Lou Grand Malheur, on Palm Sunday, 1836, a single village lost six of eight boats and seventy-eight sailors. (This instance added to the contemporary Western world's reading public fascination with the indifferent and murderous sea.) Despite the high rate of drowning and the dread that existed among the sailors themselves, they did not believe that they should abandon chaloupes for deck-covered, motor-driven ships.
By 1900 the sea had been industrialized, the Basin pacified, and Arcachon was on its way to becoming France's second largest port. Oyster fishing emerged as a full industry. At the same time, its beaches became home for bathers and flaneurs. Postcards depicted seaside people and places in terms of idealized images, while Arcachon's beach, however deteriorated in reality was made to fit the desires of bourgeois escapees from the city.
A hasty sketch of the Basin in the twentieth century constitutes Gardner's conclusion. World War I and World War II brought occupying armies and navies to control coasts, garrison forces, import materials, and practice beach landings. The 1930s saw the arrival of new waves of students and the working classes, anxious to indulge themselves in the pleasures of seaside resort life. In the 1940s and 1950s, improved roads and multiplying cars transported swelling legions of conquering tourists, who further moved fishing to the margins of the Basin. The beaches themselves were opened to more permissive dress, and gazing strollers. At the same time, ecological problems surfaced in the Basin's marshes as agricultural fertilizers from upstream filled the bay with killing algae blooms.
Aside from making a contribution to local and regional history, Garner's Shifting Shore succeeds on two counts: she adds another chapter to our understanding of how traditional places and peoples were joined to France and popular, mass and commercial cultures. Her work also excites us to imagine the history of the contested seaside elsewhere.
Soutwest Minnesota State University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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