WORKING AT PLAY

A History of Vacations in the United States

By Cindy S. Aron

Oxford. 324 pp. $35

The central theme of Cindy Aron's well-researched, persuasive examination of vacation, American-style is nicely encapsulated in its title: For Americans, play is work. A nation shaped by the work ethic and wedded to it even now, in a culture that has shifted from one "focused on production . . . to one centered around consumption and leisure," has never been entirely comfortable with idleness or relaxation. The result, Aron argues, is "a persistent dilemma: How to enjoy leisure without jeopardizing the commitment to work?" As she puts it:

"What is compelling about the history of vacations is the constancy with which Americans have struggled with the notion of taking time off from work. Despite the dramatic transformations in American life from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th centuries, concerns about vacationing remained remarkably consistent. Americans engaged in a love/hate battle with their vacations -- both wanting to take them and fearing the consequences. Relaxing did not come easily to American men and women who continued to use their leisure in the performance of various sorts of work -- religious work, intellectual work, therapeutic work. Leisure and labor remained complicated and troubling categories -- in some ways polar opposites, in other ways closely connected."

This may seem at first glance merely another instance of an academic (Aron teaches history at the University of Virginia) trying to squeeze greater import out of ordinary life than the facts can bear, but that is not the case. Though there is not much meaning to be found in the endless (albeit generally interesting) details she has tracked down about specific resorts, camping grounds, religious retreats and tourist destinations, there is much of it in the larger issues that she explores, all of which boils down to the American yearning for self-improvement.

We are a strange people. On the one hand we have little or no patience with learning for its own sake, and the strain of anti-intellectualism runs deep in us, yet on the other hand we are fiercely and insatiably autodidactic. We believe that knowledge is the key to success, and we pursue it relentlessly, demanding that almost everything we do have rewards that can be totted up in the black-ink columns of our ledgers. For years it has been one of my pet theories that the enormous popularity of the quite unreadable novels of James Michener is attributable not to any pleasures they afford -- for there are none -- but to the illusion they offer of conveying useful information inside the sugar-coated pill of fiction; ditto, in a more obvious way, for all the self-improvement books cluttering the bestseller lists since time immemorial.

In locating the work-focused nature of our vacations, therefore, Aron places them within a familiar and legitimate context, and she has scads of evidence to back up her case. From the outset, even when vacations were a near-exclusive privilege of the wealthy, Americans went on holiday with ulterior motives. Antebellum Southern planters, for example, went north in the summer to escape "the heat and disease of their plantations," while others in other regions went away "seeking health," most notably to the mineral springs where the promise (if not the actuality) of reinvigoration was offered and where, to serve the health-seekers, resort hotels and other accommodations were constructed. Less privileged people discovered that at yearly religious camp meetings they could satisfy "both their spiritual and their recreational needs."

By the mid-19th century, Aron writes, "reputable medical opinion counseled the importance of respite from work and the benefits of traveling to places where water, air, climate and enjoyable company could work some good," and "influential religious figures" had discovered "that play was part of God's plan." The development of these notions was interrupted by the Civil War, but only briefly; indeed, by the late 19th century the war itself had become part of the burgeoning vacation business, as tourists flocked to battlefields and other spots "associated with or commemorative of the Civil War."

Take a holiday, learn a history lesson: It was merely a new twist on the old themes of self-improvement and auto-didacticism. Tourists, Aron writes, "were busy vacationers, people with a purpose. They left home not only to enjoy recreation and amusement but to add to their stock of knowledge, experience and information. Rather than idling away time at a resort, drinking juleps and flirting with strangers, a tourist could feel engaged in constructive activity." So, too, could the pilgrim to Chautauqua, in western New York State, and its innumerable imitators, places "where middle-class people could both enjoy themselves and obtain formal instruction or training." These places offered even more than leisure and edification:

"Religious resorts, Chautauqua and the numerous independent assemblies played a critical role in easing middle-class men and women into vacationing. At these places one could feel safe: safe from the temptations of alcohol or gambling and safe from unscrupulous or dissolute people who might lurk at other resorts. Perhaps more importantly, self-improvement resorts provided safety from the evil that was still associated with leisure. For throughout the last half of the 19th century leisure remained, for some, tinged with its Puritan heritage: Those at leisure were idle and idleness meant trouble."

This pattern continued, in many variations, into the 20th century. The most important development then (as now, at century's end) was the democratization of leisure, "its transformation from a largely white middle-class experience to a custom shared by a wide range of the American public." Early in the century reformers, troubled by the exploitation of women and children in the labor force, pressed to gain time off for them, an effort that eventually was extended to male workers. At the same time businessmen began to realize that employees who received a certain amount of paid leisure would be happier and better workers, and tentative first steps were taken toward the vacation guarantees that most now routinely enjoy.

Yet to this day vacation is often granted grudgingly -- as many people will recall from the experience of negotiating terms of employment -- and considerably less generously than in other countries, where as many as six weeks of annual holiday are commonplace. We remain prisoners of a "persistent and continuing American suspicion of time spent away from work," even at this point in our history where opportunities for leisure and the wherewithal to enjoy it are abundant. This explains why, when my household heads off on "vacation" this summer, we will have in the trunk of the car Bermuda shorts, and sandals, and a cooler . . . and the laptop computer.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.