Disaster and Tourism in the White Mountains

Out of Nowhere: Disaster and Tourism in the White Mountains

Judd, Richard W

Out of Nowhere: Disaster and Tourism in the White Mountains. By Eric Purchase. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xiii + 192 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $38.00.

On August 28, 1826, following an epochal storm in the White Mountains, the Willey family perished under an enormous rockslide. In the consummate irony that would generate nationwide interest in the event, the slide missed the house but buried the Willeys, who apparently fled their shelter in panic. Puzzled intellectuals-James, Webster, Hawthorne, Irving, Silliman, Agassez, Marsh-probed this tragedy for moral lessons: Was nature capricious? Malignant? Uncaring? The debate provides Eric Purchase with an extended metaphor for the ambiguities of American landscape appreciation.

Using the Willey tragedy as a centerpiece, Purchase describes the artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and scientists who created the White Mountain landscape. With farm clearing already on the wain by the 1820s, promoters forged a tourist economy that drew the Willeys and others to this inhospitable region. Intellectuals, who viewed this rugged landscape through Romantic lenses, misunderstood the Willeys’ move to Crawford Notch. What made the family pivotal, apart from its spectacular demise, was the clear choice they made between tourist promotion and farming. As none of their interpreters did, the Willeys understood their move as an attempt to realize value from the land through speculation rather than agrarian production.

The book’s most innovative chapters relate the artistic and scientific interpretations of the slide. Slighting the Puritan jeremiad tradition, Purchase claims that the event marked the point at which Americans began to invent narratives to explain the pathologies of their landscape. Artist Thomas Cole, for instance, depicted the notch as a place of awesome desolation. As in his better-known “Course of Empire,” Cole offers perspective on a culture living off its accumulated wealth. White Mountain tourism, with its luxurious appointments and vulgar displays, was one more turn in the ancient cycle from Arcadia to civilization to Arcadia.

Echoing Cole’s sense of the sublime, geologists saw the landscape as a dynamic expression of inhuman forces operating over vast stretches of time. Benjamin Silliman examined the site to learn about floods and mountain formation, thus drawing the event into a debate between gradualists and catastrophists. Framing their observations in divine cosmology, geologists forged links with entrepreneurs who promoted the sublime as a basis for tourism. Purchase ends the story with George Perkins Marsh’s predictable but probably inaccurate conclusion that the Willey slide was a result of deforestation.

The book’s purposes are not always clear. The insistence that no single interpreter “felt the urge to understand the landscape on its own terms” (p. mo) seems confusing in this postmodernist context. Moreover, insights sometimes fall victim to the organizational difficulty of loading several narratives onto a single event. The various themes that burst from the accounts of the slide are unprioritized, giving the history a lurching quality. Yet this complex organization yields some brilliant connections between land speculation, art, science, and folk culture that we might overlook in a linear historical construct. At times frustrating, the book is well worth the effort, as it offers a fascinating perspective on American landscape values and their articulation in a single event with enormous national implications.

Reviewed by Richard W Judd, who is professor of history at the University of Maine. His most recent publication is Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Harvard University Press, 1997).

Copyright Environmental History Jul 2000

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