My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 5, #16,
November 1, 1999


Once again, the books I'm reading are talking to each other. One of them is the new biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park; the other is a history of vacationing in America.* Both books suggest how recent a notion it is for Americans that we should travel, play, and enjoy nature just because it's fun.

It's a notion that didn't come easy to us. When H.L. Mencken defines Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy," he wasn't being fair, but he wasn't entirely wrong either. The Puritan conviction that the human race is inherently sinful left us with a deep distrust of both our natural impulses and the idleness that would give them free rein. Our ancestors were expected to labor from sunup to sundown not only because the work needed to be done, but because if they weren't plowing, spinning, shoing horses, baking bread, raising children, God knows what mischief they might have gotten into. Time off on Sundays had to be strictly monitored to make sure people spent it in a godly manner. In case attending morning and evening services wasn't enough to quell people's baser instincts, blue laws closed down the inns and taverns that might have tempted them to stray from righteousness.

But even the most coercive environment could not wipe out the deep-rooted instinct for play. It merely forced people to invent really good reasons why play was actively virtuous. A distinction had to be made between recreation -- good for the body, mind and spirit -- and leisure, which was a near occasion of sin.

Of course play would be godly if it was done in the name of worship. One of the first kinds of traveling vacations in this country was religious revivals. People would come to camp meetings from miles around, stay for as much as a week at a time, and spend their days and evenings praying, singing hymns, rededicating their lives to God. Christian resorts offered people a chance to enjoy ocean bathing in the company of trustworthy, godfearing people. (And if the young folk discreetly got in a little flirting, it was excusable and safe.)

Meanwhile, the romantics and the landscape painters had shown that God manifested himself in the sublimeness of nature. The exaltation caused by viewing Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, the Atlantic, the Grand Canyon, was in itself a form of worship, and a balm to the troubled spirit. Inns and rooming houses sprang up in the Adirondacks and lake regions to offer citydwellers this release. (And if young folks discreetly got in a little flirting, it was excusable.)

Another of the good reasons was health. As more and more people lived in crowded dirty cities, tuberculosis ran rampant; down south, summer brought malaria. City governments began building magnificent spacious parks, oases of green grandeur and fresh air, while resorts offered people a chance to escape the city altogether, to fresh mountain air or cool ocean breezes -- a welcome relief if not a cure. Resorts near sulphur springs also offered the hope of cure by drinking the waters. Camping vacations were recommended even by ministers for being as good for the spirit as for the muscles and lungs. (And if young folks discreetly got in a little flirting, it was excusable.)

Self-improvement was another good reason to take time off. The Lyceum movement offered a traveling lecture series, where after a hard day's work, laborers could learn about music, literature, and history. At Lake Chautauqua in New York, a summer institute gave people the chance to vacation while listening to lectures, recitations and concerts; the idea became so popular that traveling Chautauquas roamed the country, creating instant tent cities wherever they briefly settled. Traveling abroad or to a World Fair, or even visiting museums, was also widely considered educational and uplifting. (And if the young folk discreetly got in a little flirting, it was excusable.)

By the end of the 19th century people were even arguing that it made good business sense for everybody to have vacations -- workers would come back rested and refreshed and ready to work that much harder.

What nobody in the 19th century was saying, though, is that people should get to play for the sheer fun of it. There was still no such thing as toga parties or spring break in Florida. For that to happen required an entire century of entertainment.

At first people pretended that movies, radio and television were, or at least could be, uplifting. Lots more people claimed to be listening to the opera or watching Edward R. Murrow documentaries than really were doing it -- for a long time many of us were embarrassed to admit that what we really liked were soap operas and quiz shows.

But gradually, television BECAME our culture, and sitting back and letting ourselves be entertained became our life after work. Whole industries that depended on our learning to indulge ourselves taught us that entertainment was its own excuse, something we deserved whether or not we had earned it. Travel became cheap enough that almost any of us could afford a visit to a Six Flags, if not Disney World, or to gamble at a nearby Indian casino if not in Las Vegas. (And if the young folk got in some heavy duty flirting, that was precisely the point.)

The urge to justify luxury with good works and self-improvement lives on; there are still health spas and elderhostels and educational tours, and still people who devote their spare time to campaigning for candidates, building homes for the poor, and rescuing earthquake victims (Freedom Summer, you'll recall, was how a lot of kids spent their summer vacation). But mostly, we no longer require any greater excuse for our vacation choices than that we felt like doing it. If it exalts our spirits to see the Grand Canyon, or tests our mettle to backpack the Appalachian Trail, that's fine, or course. We just don't need that as a justification anymore.

It took us a long time to learn to be frivolous, 350 years or so, but my God, have we gotten good at it. Possibly even a little too good.

*Witold Rybczynski. A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century. Scribner, 1999.

Cindy S. Aron. Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States. Oxford University Press, 1999.

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