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The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America.


By Lawrence Culver (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, 336 pp., $29.95 cloth)


IN The Frontier of Leisure, Lawrence Culver explores southern California's contribution to a national culture of recreation, outdoor living, and suburbanization. His central premise is that the Los Angeles region played a pivotal role in the "democratization of American leisure," as local boosters remade leisure from a decadent occupation of the affluent to a key component of middle-class culture offering a beneficial antidote to urban life. Culver's investigation of leisure, based especially on case studies of Santa Catalina Island and Palm Springs, provides a fascinating account of how promoters sold southern California in a range of ways, from an idyllic escape to the embodiment of American modernism.

Culver begins his study by exploring how figures such as Charles Fletcher Lummis advocated outdoor living and painted the region as a tourist destination whose romanticized Hispanic heritage and reconstructed missions and ranchos suggested a "precapitalist Eden" offering eastern visitors relief from an emerging urban-industrial environment. Catalina's promoters, creating a resort, built on Lummis's work, highlighting the island's mild climate scenic beauty, and opportunities for outdoor sport. Culver argues that the Wrigley family, which purchased the island in 1919, "themed" their resort as part "Old Spanish" California, part Wild West, and part tropical paradise, thus anticipating Disneyland's elaborately constructed environments.

Palm Springs eclipsed Catalina as a leading resort after the Second World War, and more significantly, according to Culver, the former came to embody innovations in leisure that influenced national patterns not only of recreation but of suburbanization as well. In an intriguing discussion of architecture and suburban development, Culver argues that the ranch house and the suburban golf community, both of which were pioneered in Palm Springs, spawned imitators nationwide. The larger significance of these developments, Culver maintains, is the way they promoted a vision of leisure and middle-class culture that was oriented inward toward enclosed patios and private golf courses rather than outward toward public spaces. Culver draws a connection between patterns of leisure and residence in southern California and the emergence of conservative politics in the Sun Belt.

The book's main shortcoming might be its ambitious scope. Culver promises to explain both the development of leisure in southern California and its reception as a way of life by the nation as a whole. Most of the discussion of the latter issue comes in the book's final chapter, which focuses on Phoenix to suggest the "Californiazation" of the nation after the Second World War. While this chapter provides a thought-provoking discussion, some readers may wish for more discussion of the influence of southern California-style leisure culture outside the Sun Belt. Furthermore, Culver cites only a handful of tourists in this book; though he does an admirable job revealing the way southern California remade national ideas about leisure, their voices might have strengthened this aspect of his argument. Nevertheless, The Frontier of Leisure is a welcome addition to the historiography of tourism and recreation and provides valuable insights for students of California history.

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Author:Strathman, Theodore A.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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