How America fell in love with camping: book review

Book Review of Under the Stars: how America fell in love with camping by Dan White (Henry Holt & Co., 2016)

by Sam Demas

This is a pretty good popular-level introduction to the development of recreational camping in the USA, which the author characterizes as “a Victorian passion that got out of hand.”  Unfortunately, a significant part of the author’s methodology is to take the reader along on a series of camping trips that he believes allow him to come close to living through what the people of the era experienced.  While Dan White is an experienced hiker and a very good story teller, I personally found the device of including his personal camping stories a bit tedious and beside the point.  Others will disagree.

White points out that many outdoors stories involve journeys of redemption and escape of modern life, and that America likes the story of an underdog.  Thus we get many books about hapless hikers who, in a strictly purists’ sense, have no business being in the woods.  But somehow these “everyman” bumblers make good and come out with important life lessons.  In this book and his previous book about through hiking the PCT, White seems to locate himself in this genre along with notables Cheryl Strayed (whose PCT personal memoir I think is very well done) and Bill Bryson (not nearly as successful IMHO).  This fits with his theme of the democratization of camping and its fairly broad appeal.

But for me his personal tribulations and showy neuroses are not nearly as interesting as the stories and profiles of some of the highlights in the development of camping in America.  White entertainingly cherry-picks the most obvious stories and profiles some of the most colorful characters in this historical arena.  He tells these stories well and the book provides a readable, if patchy, introduction to the history of camping in USA.  The book is broad rather than deep in its approach to history and cultural analysis.  While he is not a scholar, the book includes a useful index, footnotes and a decent bibliography, each of which will allow the reader to follow paths to connections and more in-depth information.

It is worth mentioning some of the stories he entertainingly brings to life in Under the Stars:

The chapter on Thoreau is not very interesting in terms of camping, but sets that stage for further exploration of  an American tradition of living temporarily in the wild and seeking solitude. His writing on camping in the Adirondacks traces the development of camping from an elite pursuit to a democratizing antidote for “neurasthenia”.  This is what we call anxiety today, and resulted in the 19th century from increased urbanization and the rise of meaningless office work.  Of particular interest is the story of William HH Murray, the Boston preacher who developed a craze for camping and generated a backlash that revealed (among other things) class tensions between the elites and the impulse to democratizing access to the outdoors. Teddy Roosevelt’s connections to the Adirondacks and the rustic guide George Washington Sears, aka Nessmuk, are also discussed.

To me, the chapter on Horace Kephart was the most interesting in the book.  Author of the venerable Book of Camping and Woodcraft (first edition 1906) and acclaimed as the “Dean of American Camping”, Kephart was a great character who had tremendous influence on the development of the outdoor recreation imagination in America.   His trajectory from gentleman, scholar and librarian, through struggles with alcohol, a nervous breakdown, and abruptly leaving his career and family transformed him into a somewhat  reclusive master of “woodcraft” who lived in the woods in North Carolina, and became a prodigious writer of influential columns in outdoor magazines. He was a major player in the Golden Age of American Camping (1880 – 1930) and well worth learning more about.  (Stay tuned: George Ellison and Janet McCue are about to publish a biography of Kephart).

The formation of the Boy Scouts is an better known chapter in American camping.  The colorful saga of how Ernest Thompson Seton, Sir Baden Powell, and Daniel Carter Beard gradually evolved disparate experiments in outdoor programs for youth into the Boy Scouts is told with verve.  The chapter on women in camping presents some of the reasons (e.g. fashion, conceptions of health, and lack of disposable sanitary pads, not to mention deeply ingrained cultural biases) on why it took so long for women to find their rightful place under the stars.   I really enjoyed the stories of early transcontinental walkers Helga and Clara Estby, Katherine G. Pinkerton (Woodcraft for Women (1924), and womens’ rights activist Grace Gallatin Seton-Thompson.

Finally, there are useful chapters on the productive relationship between Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, the story of polyester-driven the gear revolution that propelled America into a nation of serious backpackers and moved us from woodcraft to Leave No Trace, and glimpses of legendary campers Colin Fletcher and Edward Abbey.

On the other hand, the chapters on camping naked, glamping in a California safari setting, and the author’s self-appointed task of picking up and measuring the extent of human shit on a hike up Mt. Whitney, for example, strike me as artificially protracted, self-indulgent writing that serve to divert from the few important points they make.

White had done a service by gathering together some of the key stories and cultural currents that led to the development of American camping culture.  Some folks will like Dan White’s personal tales, and others will skip over them and focus on the history.  In any case, White touches on a fascinating topic with relevance to understanding and shaping the future of camping, which is why I picked up the book in the first place.

Review by Sam Demas November 2016