Storms beat on the rocky cliffs and were echoed
By icy-feathered terns and the eagle’s screams;
No kinsman could offer comfort there,
To a soul left drowning in desolation.The Seafarer (Old English Poem)
Well before the Bible told the story of Jesus calming the storm in the Sea of Galilee, and even before Odysseus’ famous journey, Western culture has struggled to make sense of the ocean. This struggle is why, of course, the ocean served so easily, for so many artists through history, as a metaphor for the soul. The traversal of the ocean, like the journey of the soul through life, was pitted with uncertainty across incomprehensible depths. And these metaphors endure. While we’ve progressed from classical, biblical, and narrative frameworks to hard science in our attempt to give order to its chaos, we still seem to feel most comfortable thinking of the ocean figuratively. The ocean, literally the unexplored terrain of our own world, marks the boundary between Man and eternity, often representing in our collective imagination the limits of human experience and reason.
However, even as recently as 125 years ago, and well after the ascent of a middle-class with the disposable income to take a summer vacation, the beach was no place for families. And this was not just because the beach was a dangerous place, home to pirates, war, pestilence, and industry. And despite the persistence of ocean metaphors in a general way, over the last 150 or so years in art, literature, and popular culture, we can see a total reversal of the meanings given to the ocean, reflecting a far more general shift in how we understand our human nature. We discover this especially in the contemporary popularity of the beach trip — a form of leisure that feels as “natural” to us as it would have felt unnatural to our (even recent) ancestors.
Again, we don’t have to look back far to glimpse the reorganization of the oceanic Imaginary. On the one hand, 19th century vacations in general were rigidly gendered. Then as now, vacations were considered necessary respites from labor to reenergize body and mind; characteristically though, the labor of women was not recognized. So there wasn’t much of a concept of family vacations, and the holidays that did exist were decidedly androcentric. Perhaps this explains the popularity of fin de siecle hunting and sporting trips; however, on the other hand, it doesn’t explain Thomas Jefferson’s preference for the Blue Ridge over the blue sea, or the overall aversion pre-twentieth century peoples had to the beach — a more confusing bit of business. After all, our desire for the tranquility and beauty of the ocean shore is now so commonplace that it feels eternal.
Justification for the common middle class family beach trip, when it is given at all, centers on the calming effect, and the “obvious” beauty, of the environment. Parents, perhaps, want to get the kids out of the house and away from an increasingly rapid-fire culture — and no doubt to savor the change of pace themselves. Recently, the BlueHealth project, a large (18,000 people) multidisciplinary research initiative sponsored by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020, went so far as to valorize beach vacations as the natural outcome of our attraction to the color blue, claiming that beach vacations have substantial medical benefits. Add to this the seemingly natural attraction of children to sand, waves, and sea specimens, and the appeal seems uncomplicated — as uncomplicated as the frothy pastels, goofy Parrothead iconography, and tacky “Footprints in the Sand” art that comprise our beach aesthetic.
But our shared love of the beach says far more about our culture — and what we see when we gaze on the ocean from our liminal position on the shore — than it does about our nature.
In 1630, this liminality led Puritan theologian John Flavel, himself no stranger to the perils of ocean voyage, to stipulate that “Sea-men are… to be Number’d neither with the Living nor the Dead.” If only a trace of this logic now remains — and if the ocean is no longer primarily the domain of myth and religious study — we are witness to an incredible shift.
This shift is not evident, however, at the origins of modern tourism. But why? Beginning in the late nineteenth century, there was a great deal of chatter — advice articles, advertisements, religious and scholarly exegesis — over what constituted the “ideal” vacation, and hand-wringing over how, exactly, one should go about vacationing. It should not be a surprise, however, that surveying the popular vacation destinations of the 18th and 19th reveals mostly the tourism of both sublime inland “natural wonders” (in addition to, of course, cultural landmarks): mountains, countryside, wilderness, and lakes. They too still considered the beach, home mostly to poor laborers in seafaring industries, intemperate, ignoble, and dangerous.
But more importantly, the beach did not conform to their ideal of prelapsarian view of nature or beauty. Preferring the natural balance, abundance, and harmony implied by Eden, early Americans chose to vacation at more moderate inland climes; they greatly preferred the beauty of variegated landscapes, such as Chesapeake Bay, over that of a tropical paradise. It would take more than air conditioning, and more than the commodification of leisure, to make the ocean a place people wanted to visit.
So if we’ve finally “tamed” the shore, and somehow extricated ourselves from the sedimentation of anxieties surrounding it — and the fact that we vacation at the ocean suggests as much — we’ve only done so in our own peculiar way. We can see this on the surface by looking at the ethnographic details of our family beach vacations, our beach infrastructure, and our beach culture. But we simply can’t reduce the domestication of the shore, as some have, to the march of capitalism or advances in technology. The peculiarity of our beach vacation, our peculiarity, is foremost a matter of the special order we’ve given to the imagined depths of our humanity, and it is most evident in both the aesthetic and simple everyday acts through which we visualize and otherwise represent our world.
Each culture gets the Nature, and the vacations, it deserves. When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, their excitement was expressed at every point upon Edenic themes: the abundance of unspoiled land and wildlife, the sublime open spaces, the innocent population of Rousseauian “Noble Savages.” America was truly a New World where Man could start again.
Take, for example, seminal Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole’s 1836 Essay On American Scenery, which might pass for the first brochure on eco-tourism. Cole argues that the American wilderness is itself the manifestation of Nature in the ideal — a sublime Edenic space reflecting the true plan of the master designer — in opposition to fallen European Culture. The ocean shore is scarcely mentioned at all, and the ocean itself serves mostly as a metaphor for emptiness and insanity. For Cole, communing with Nature meant contemplating the divine incomprehensibility of its vast and varied space.
This is not to say that there were no vacation destinations at the beach in the 19th century. The foundations of modern beach tourism appear, as Alain Corbin demonstrated in The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside 1750-1840, with the earlier era’s obsession with the magical waters and the modern industry that emerged around the famous spa towns. Putting aside the fact that the spa vacation belonged to the aristocracy and little reflected our far more democratic beach trip, it is true that the aristocratic pursuit of the sublime during the period explored by Corbin ended in a new appreciation for the shores, especially among Romantics. Nevertheless, even until the turn of the 20th century, the steady increase in trips to the beach had much more to do with the supposed curative properties of ocean water and air — ideas that remain only as a trace today. There’s was a sensibility built at least in part on the ancient animist idea of divine space, a belief in magical places through which divine power revealed itself and spoke. Think: “Oracle of Delphi” rather than “Endless Summer.” The trace of this intelligibility of space is evident in the works of the Hudson River School and other American landscape painters that illuminated natural scenes with a central, divine light; as Asher Brown Durand put it, “The true province of Landscape Art is the representation of the work of God in the visible creation…”
An appreciation for the shore would require nothing less than a revolution in how humans imagined space. And, indeed, by the 20th century, a radically new “Modern” intelligibility of space was emerging. For the Moderns, the idea of Nature turned on a Darwinian metaphor of evolutionary space. Modern culture imagined a natural world governed by its own internal laws rather than divine provenance; for the moderns, the vicissitudes of nature are governed by natural selection, procreation, evolution, and more generally the survival of the species, rather than the hand of God. And they required new forms of visualization to represent this teleological thinking.
Perhaps no one better captures the shifting intelligibility of the beach than Winslow Homer, whose realist paintings depict the uneasy relation Americans had with the ocean even into the twentieth century. Homer’s most familiar works portray the ocean as dramatic and dangerous. But his lesser known works depicting shore life alternate between ruminations on the pleasures of the shore (e.g., The Bathers, 1873), and more commonly, explorations of maritime peril (e.g., After the Hurricane, Bahamas, 1899). Even in his most pleasant depictions of the ocean and the shore, almost invariably, darkening clouds loom ominously overhead. His 1881 watercolor Fisher Girls On the Beach, Cullercoats, featuring two rugged young fisherwomen waiting on a dreary, rain-sodden beach for the day’s catch, is typical of his depiction of shore life.
Henry James — a huge spa enthusiast on his trips through Europe—famously condemned Homer’s works, not for their skill, but for their subjects, which James found to be “the least pictorial range of scenery and civilization.” With language like that, it’s pretty clear that you wouldn’t want to invite James on your next get-away to Ocean City; but then again, you wouldn’t want to invite Homer either.
More importantly though, James was missing the significance of Homer’s subjects. At the center of Homer’s work — closely tracking Darwin — isn’t so much raw and rugged people and places as it is the struggle of Man against Nature for survival.
Winslow Homer’s beaches recall the shores as depicted by another famous Homer. For thousands of years tales warned people against the shore — it was, after all, where monsters such as Scylla and Charybdis terrorized sailors. And still, two thousand year later, in the work of Winslow Homer, untamed Nature is the monster.
Despite all of this, in Winslow Homer’s shore paintings, we can just begin to glimpse a culture of leisure emerging at the beach. And around the same time, a very different painter was teaching us to look at shores — albeit, distant ones — with wonder instead of repulsion and fear: Paul Gauguin. And in the end, the aesthetic and iconography of our contemporary beach vacation looks a lot more like Gauguin’s French colonialism than aristocratic spa culture or Homer’s working class beach subjects. However, in Gauguin’s contemptable personality and disturbing visions of the shore, we find something disturbing about our own obsession with the beach.
Regardless of our opinion of his perverted and revolting character, we must admit that Gauguin was the prescient master of the Modern representation of Nature, and a debased version of his vision of the “exotic” survives in the contemporary beach aesthetic. On the one hand, his works retain a trace of the old Edenic metaphor, where shore life represents a kind of return to innocence and truth. But like Homer, his grammar is evolutionary rather than religious.
Here is Gauguin in Polynesia: in a reversal of the argument that art is autonomous form, he is painting to reconcile our supposedly paradoxical primitive desires in the face of our sophistication. After all, who for Gauguin was more “primitive” — and therefore more natural — than the Polynesians and other islanders Europeans encountered as they plundered the globe? Again, there is something Edenic about this. But the “savages” encountered by Gauguin were not quite the same as Rousseau’s. A new intelligibility of primitivism had emerged that turned on new (and decidedly racist) evolutionary metaphors — even though we had evolved beyond them, these savages were a part of us, when we really thought about it, occupying a neighboring grid within the evolutionary space that we all share.
Gauguin again: it is in his terms that we can begin to understand the enduring popularity of the topless beach, the aggressively-revealing bathing suit, the “trashy” beach novel, the Tiki bar, the “savage” tan, and perhaps even Jimmy Buffet.
For Gauguin, only the transitional space of the shore, and not the verdant and Edenic mountains or countryside, could provide the landscape of a ritualistic symbolic descent into our evolutionary past. Only at the shore can we remain on land while confronting the depths our desires.
In short, the 19th century marked the emergence of a desire to return to original Nature in order to be literally and figuratively naked and free of social conventions, which was rather different than the desire to occupy the space of God. Ocean water, replaced by the stream-of-consciousness as the center of human experience, loses the force of its other-worldly metaphorical structure, even though its depths re-appear as the mysterious liquid that supports the Freudian iceberg of consciousness. And the beach becomes even more important in the popular imagination, providing an “in-between” space for us to commune with our evolutionary past and to contemplate our “true nature.” Sure, we still imagine something of ourselves by gazing out upon oceanic depths. But first: the beach is the place where we take our clothes off.
Perhaps most significantly, this evolutionary and developmental metaphor that separates us from our primitive ancestors also separates adults from children — adults being children that have, according to this logic, “developed.” Again, the beach is a space for us to close these distances; it’s a borderland space where rules are reversed and adults and children can become, temporarily at least, more alike.
Along these lines, the current popularity of the beach owes something to the rise of post-war teenage consumer culture; the beach is both a marginal place where youth has free reign, and also where —and probably more importantly — one can discover or recapture the spirit of youth. The virtues of being youthful, and therefore more “free,” more undeveloped, more emotional and more without reason — and therefore also more like Gauguin’s “savages” — are well-documented as they pertain to our consumer culture. So it stands to reason that any place parents and children can both be youthful together, where the formal bonds that bind families can be relinquished or at least loosened temporarily, would have a privileged place in our society. Of course, in order to arrive at this symbolic ordering, we had to completely reverse the tradition of the beach as a space where death, not youth, reigned.
A trip to the shore is tonic for modern families. We know implicitly that at the beach most of our social norms are cast aside or reversed in an almost carnivalesque manner (no wonder beach boardwalks featured carnivals and amusement parks right from the start); rigid prescriptions for behavior, dress, and even social hierarchy are left behind. Even morality is loosened. But most of all, with nothing to do except relax and enjoy these freedoms from social strictures that seem to extend from Nature itself, the beach provides a space where families find a way to bond.
The beach vacation is at the very center of the middle-class family experience, so much so that one wonders how any family that does not pilgrimage to the beach functions at all. What happens, we wonder, to children that don’t spend at least a week during the summer outside of their unnatural urban and suburban environments getting messy in the sand, eating novelty ice-cream at will, becoming mesmerized not by video games, but by the rhythmic lap of ocean waves? But if we now share a vision of healthy family life that includes the shore as natural, it is only because we have also deeply internalized the lens of a racialized evolutionary phantasmagoria.•