Book review: Devil’s Bargains by Hal K. Rothman

Historic photo of a Colorado ski resort

Tourism in the American West has been a subject that has been ignored for far too long. Indeed, its last major scholarly treatment occurred in 1957 with Earl Pomeroy’s In Search of the Golden West, and historians since then have been distinctly reticent to tackle the subject for fear of mockery. However, Devil’s Bargains by the late Hal K. Rothman revitalizes the subject in a powerfully written and historically relevant manner. He expands beyond Pomeroy’s look at California and instead looks at much of the trans-Mississippi West, narrowing down his narrative to regions and specific time frames. Rothman argues that tourism is not a passive act that is simply rooted in the desire to take a break from everyday life, but rather a colonial act that transforms the locals who accommodate the tourists as well as the landscape itself. However, in many ways, tourism was and is a necessity for many towns and regions: ascribing these places to a touristic economy is, in essence, a devil’s bargain.

Tourism used to be an activity limited to only the wealthy elite, as transnational travel at the turn of the century was both expensive and arduous, even with the advent of the railroad. For towns that were not connected to the railroad, their economies were extraordinarily delicate. However, tourism became more accessible—and more affordable—with the invention of inexpensive automobiles and highways, which opened up vast amounts of places to explore. The expanding middle class, who sought to feel the luxuriousness of tourism that the upper class had felt decades before they could, travelled throughout the country in droves and brought many of the physical and cultural changes Rothman attributes to tourism around the middle of the twentieth century. His focus specifically on the American West highlights the enduring contemporaneous belief in the West as an embodiment of Manifest Destiny, which served as a major draw to those who felt limited and disenchanted with the cultural and social hierarchies that were prevalent on the East Coast.

Rothman looked at a wide array of sources to inform his book, from contemporaneous periodicals to theses and dissertations to oral histories. He identifies three distinct types of tourism: “heritage or cultural tourism,” “recreational tourism,” and “entertainment tourism.” Different instances ranging from art colonies to dude ranching in the history of tourism in Santa Fe and the American Southwest illustrate cultural tourism; Sun Valley, Aspen, and other ski resorts illustrate recreational tourism; and Las Vegas embodies entertainment tourism. His discussion of Las Vegas in chapters eleven and twelve almost seem to warrant a separate book, as his tone shifts from cynical and denigrating to optimistic and excited. This can be largely attributed to the fact that he taught at University of Nevada – Las Vegas as well as his pro-Nevada leanings in other works such as Nevada: Magnificent Wilderness (1996). As an environmental historian, Rothman’s account is filled with alliterations to the negative impact of tourism on the environment, though he mainly focuses on the social and cultural effects.

Rothman’s argument is powerfully written and highly persuasive, albeit a little confusing, as he occasionally seems to get lost in his exquisite prose, excessively repeat the same points, and even contradict himself. There are some fundamental issues with his overall treatment of the subject of tourism. For example, he has little regard for the actual tourists themselves, lumping them into a collective category: “Americans in [the 1930s] needed accessible affirmation of a national cause, and the message of the site aimed at a hegemonic value system, expressing the ideals of the American quest from its roots in the idea of a city on a hill to its fruition in the conquest of the continent” (155). He also seems to have equally little regard for locals, for even though his argument revolves around the fact that have been displaced by tourism, which he defines as a sort of postmodern colonialism, he highlights their seemingly blue-collar nature and refers to them several times as “serfs” in instances where they are catering to, or changing their environment for, the rich tourist invaders.

Furthermore, the amount of research he invested appears impressive and formidable, though a thorough combing of his extensive endnotes shows that there is insufficient citation on occasion: for example, one citation of an article entitled “Steamboat Springs Spends $1 Million for Big Sports Setup” in the Rocky Mountain News simply puts the date of the article at “ca. 1964” (411); a search for another article in the Rocky Mountain News—“Steamboat Springs: Ski Town U.S.A.” by William Logan, published on May 15, 1966 (411)—turns up no tangible results. Though it is rarely a priority to go through an author’s endnotes to confirm the authenticity of the his or her arguments, two discrepancies on the same page of notes and in the same chapter does make one question the validity of the author’s research and of their overall argument. His forceful and occasionally borderline crass prose in light of these discrepancies seems to be an intentional decision to mask the piece’s overall weakness.

Despite its shortcomings, the most disturbing of which may be Rothman’s lack of completely legitimate research, Devil’s Bargains is a compelling and well-versed read that will make anyone question not only the history of tourism, but themselves as tourists. Though he generally paints tourism in a negative and depressing light, one cannot help but wonder if this book will contribute to a new tourism that is socially and environmentally conscious. The West may be permanently altered after the changes brought about by the tourists of the twentieth century, but as evidenced by Las Vegas, not all is lost.

Disclaimer: This is a draft of a review written for HIST 6317: Readings in the American West at CU Boulder. This post is intended to serve as a starting point for further research for interested readers, NOT as a book report to be copied. Any copying of this post is plagiarism, which is very frowned upon in academia. 

(c) Stefani at Florence and the Historian, 2012

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