Top Young Historians: 55 – Lawrence Culver


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

55: Lawrence Culver, 6-4-07

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor, Department of History, Utah State University, 2004-present
Area of Research: U.S. Southwest Borderlands, the American West, cultural, environmental, and urban history, and the histories of tourism, recreation, architecture, and urban planning.
Education: Ph.D. in History, University of California, Los Angeles, 2004
Major Publications: Culver is the author of the forthcoming book The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America
Lawrence Culver JPGwhich is a revision of his prize winning dissertation “The Island, the Oasis, and the City: Santa Catalina, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, and Southern California’s Shaping of American Life and Leisure” for which received the 2005 Rachel Carson Prize for the best dissertation in Environmental History, a prize awarded annually by the American Society for Environmental History.
He is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters including: “Promoting the Pacific Borderlands: Leisure and Labor in Southern California, 1870-1950.” In Disrupted Boundaries: Consumption in the United States-Mexico Borderlands. Ed. Alexis McCrossen. (Forthcoming, Duke University Press and the Clements Center for Southwest Studies); “America’s Playground: Recreation and Race in Los Angeles,” in The Blackwell’s Companion to Los Angeles History. Eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise, (Forthcoming Blackwell Press); “From Public to Private Nature in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles,” in The Place of Nature in the City. Studies in International Environmental History Series, Eds. Dorothee Brantz and Sonja Dümpelmann, (Under consideration by Rowman & Littlefield and the German Historical Institute); “Connecting Myth to History: Interpreting the Western Past at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center,” Western Historical Quarterly, (Winter 1998, 515-519.); “Economic Aspirations and the Politics of National Park Creation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, 1919-1929,” in People and Place: The Human Experience in Greater Yellowstone, Eds. Paul Schullery and Sarah Stevenson, (National Park Service and Yellowstone Center for Resources, 2005), 180-194; “From Last of the Old West to First of the New West: Tourism and Transformation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” in Imagining the Big Open: Nature, Identity, and Play in the New West, Eds. Liza Nicholas, Elaine P. Bapis, and Thomas J. Harve, (University of Utah Press, 2003), 163-180; and “The Literature of Tourism and Its Discontents: Auto Tourist Travel Narratives, 1915-1940,” in Reading Under the Sign of Nature: New Essays in Ecocriticism, Eds. John Tallmadge and Henry Harrington, (University of Utah Press, 2000), 36-48; among others. He has also published reviews in journals including the Western Historical Quarterly, Environmental History, and the Southern California Quarterly.
Awards: Culver is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Rachel Carson Prize for Best Dissertation in Environmental History (U.S. or World), American Society for Environmental History, 2005;
Excellence in Instruction for First-Year Students Award, Utah State University, 2007;
John Topham and Susan Redd Butler Faculty Fellowship, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Brigham Young University, 2007;
Utah Humanities Council Grant, 2007;
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship, Huntington Library, 2006;
Historical Society of Southern California Haynes Foundation Research Award, 2006;
Utah State University New Faculty Research Grant, 2005;
Western History Association – Martin Ridge Fellowship, Huntington Library, 2005;
Historical Society of Southern California Haynes Foundation Research Award, 2005;
American Society for Environmental History Donald Worster Travel Award, 2004;
Historical Society of Southern California Haynes Foundation Research Award, 2004;
UCLA Dissertation Year Fellowship, 2003-2004;
Historical Society of Southern California Haynes Foundation Research Award, 2001;
Autry Museum of Western Heritage Summer Research Fellowship, 2001;
UCLA Summer Research Mentorship Fellowship, 2000;
UCLA Regents/Carey McWilliams Fellowship, 1998-2002;
Mountain West Center for Regional Studies Research Award, 1997.
Additional Info:
Culver has also written for a number of popular history magazine including: “Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design,” “Spur: Magazine of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage,” and “Points West: Magazine of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.”
He has also worked in field of public history as an employee of the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, the Institute for the Study of the American West, the Museum of the American West, and the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, all of the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, and as an historical researcher for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Personal Anecdote

Someone who studies leisure and tourism in American history is likely to encounter bewilderment, not to mention some humor, at their expense. I first encountered this as an M.A. student, studying tourism and how it had transformed Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The staff at the local historical society were baffled – fur trappers, farmers, cowboys and Indians – that was history. Skiers and auto tourists? Not so much. Later, as a doctoral student, friends ribbed me about my “research trips” to places such as Palm Springs. Even though I visited numerous archives, conducted oral history interviews, and plowed through vast amounts of tourist ephemera, somehow it was difficult to prove that I had not simply reinvented dissertating as a vacation.

And yet the histories of tourism and recreation can tell us much about our history, and how people chose to have fun certainly tells us as much about them as how they chose to work. If I consider my broader research interests – environmental and urban history, and the history of the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands and American West, I find that examining leisure illuminates each of them in new ways.

One of the ironies of the history of Los Angeles and Southern California is that a region relentlessly promoted as the playground of the world also expended vast energies trying to prevent many residents from even occupying recreational space. Los Angeles County, with 75 miles of coastline, mandated that all beaches were white only, with one tiny strip – adjacent to a sewage outlet – available to African Americans. Property deeds in Malibu not only banned non-Anglo homeowners, they even stated that a person of color could occupy the beach only if they were working for a white homeowner. Today, millionaires (and billionaires) in Malibu are still trying to restrict access to local beaches, even though all are public land under state law, in an urban region where millions have limited access to scant parkland and recreational space.

Then there is the role of leisure in our individual lives. The resorts of Southern California, aided by Hollywood, popularized many aspects of modern recreation, from sun tans to the backyard swimming pool. Even the ranch house, that icon of postwar suburbia, was popularized by resorts such as Palm Springs, and offered resort-style living not as a vacation, but as a way of life. They also incorporated yards and patios as social space, bringing the outside in. How ordinary people incorporated nature into their homes and their recreation can help us more fully understand popular environmental attitudes.

Labor and leisure are inextricably and problematically intertwined in the U.S. Southwest. Perhaps there is no better example of how Anglo Americans have misapprehended and misremembered the history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands than the spectacle of Anglo American residents of a Sunbelt city such as Phoenix railing against illegal immigrants and the federal government – the two things most responsible for the growth of that metropolis. Undocumented workers built the houses and landscaped the yards, care for suburban kids and clean suburban homes, and water from federal dam projects keeps the lawns green and the entire city viable. Who labors, and who has the luxury of leisure, tells us much about issues of race, class, citizenship, and power in the past, as well as the present.

[What] I really enjoy about being an historian is using and communicating historical knowledge in very different ways — in research and writing withing the profession, through teaching, from surveys to graduate seminars, and through public history — in museum exhibits, public advocacy, and in research projects, such as one I completed examining race and access to recreational space in Los Angeles. That report is now being used to advocate for increased parkland and access to recreational opportunities for all the residents of L.A. Being able to use historical knowledge to help people in the present is an especially rewarding aspect of being an historian.


By Lawrence Culver

  • In July of 1955, Walter Elias Disney opened a new amusement park in Anaheim, California. When Disney unveiled his park, he invited tourists to enjoy its different self-contained realms of leisure. There was Frontierland, frozen forever in a Turnerian moment, Adventureland, with its exotic cultures and tropical atmosphere, the fairy tale realm of Fantasyland, the small-town nostalgia of Main Street U.S.A., and alluring Tomorrowland, where visitors could ride the Carousel of Progress into a future of contentment and abundance. What was striking about these different realms of leisure was that at different times, Southern California had been promoted as each of these places. It was presented as a pastoral agricultural frontier, an exotic destination for adventuresome tourists, the embodiment of traditional American values, a Hollywood fantasy where every dream came true, and a model of the American future, filled with immense promise. These successive promotions, initiated in the decade following the Civil War, would transform Southern California. Yet they would also shape the future of the United States. In the process, this region would remake American attitudes towards leisure, alter the course of urban growth and architecture, and contribute directly to the evolving environmental attitudes of modern America. — — Lawrence Culver in the book manuscript for the forthcoming “The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America”

About Lawrence Culver

  • “The committee read nine dissertations. We read manuscripts on controlling urban weeds, Great Plains conservation, on environmental politics, and on the “re-wilding” of Apostle Island National Lakeshore. We were very impressed with these works and felt that most all of the authors make great contributions to environmental history.
    The winning manuscript considers the lifestyle of leisure in Southern California, arguing that Catalina Island, Palm Springs, and Los Angeles contributed to the formation of a distinct American suburban culture in the twentieth century, and that these landscapes of leisure have proved to be at least as influential as the nineteenth-century suburban “hearths”–places like Westchester County, New York. Lawrence Culver asks us to think about all the ways that Palm Springs changed the way Americans thought about leisure: modernist desert architecture, the golf-course residence, and the Hollywood vacation colony. He also writes compellingly about segregated pools and beaches in Los Angeles–how African Americans resisted segregation and how they created their own places of leisure, like Val Verde, known as the “Black Palm Springs.”
    The manuscript explores the idea that leisure shaped the development of Southern California and “ultimately influenced the nation as a whole.” Perhaps most important of all, Culver refuses to look at these places as mere backdrops for certain attitudes about leisure or from the point of view of tourists but as emerging communities themselves–as suburban societies, in which people with competing interests and conflicting assumptions struggled over development.
    We found this argument compelling, and we were very impressed by the skillful way that Culver situates it in the literature of tourism. He writes gracefully and tells tight, witty stories. Kavita said of the manuscript that it is “a successful piece of interdisciplinary scholarship that creatively integrates urban and suburban studies, architectural history, and cultural politics.” Neil said that the author did “a wonderful job weaving cultural and social history with the history of tourism and leisure,” and he thought that Culver “succeeded in linking his local history with larger events in U.S. history generally.” Neil called it innovative and said that it “pushes environmental history in interesting directions.”
    And that might be the most important criteria for a winner of this prize. The 2005 Rachel Carson Dissertation Prize is awarded to Milton Lawrence Culver for “The Island, the Oasis, and the City: Santa Catalina, Palm Springs, Los Angeles, and Southern California’s Shaping of American Life and Leisure.”
    Congratulations for writing a significant book. — Rachel Carson Prize Committee for 2004: Steven Stoll, Chair; Neil Maher; Kavita Philip
  • “The class was very interesting. Dr. Culver made it really fun and it was organized very well. He was also really funny and that made the class better.”… “You are the best history teacher that I have ever had. I can tell you love the subject by the way you teach. You’re enthusiastic and I love listening to your lectures, which is really saying something because I normally hate lectures. I love how you add comedy to the class too. You really are very interesting to listen to.”… “I really enjoyed the structure of the course with primary documents and lecture outlines posted on the website. The lectures were interesting and captivating.”… “I loved the readings and how much information was packed into each lecture. The papers were all interesting to write. I thought that Professor Culver was an excellent teacher.”… “I felt that Lawrence really brought to life the distinctiveness of the borderlands, and how they have a larger impact on western history that I had previously recognized. The readings were varied and covered much of the diversity of the borderlands.” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, June 3, 2007 at 6:32 PM

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