Devil’s Bargains in a New Century: The Legacy of Hal Rothman

It has been ten years since we lost Hal Rothman. Rather than write a memorial, we here at BlogWest decided to ask someone who never met Hal, but uses his work extensively, to offer her thoughts on his legacy. Mette Flynt is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma, where she is working on a dissertation about skiing and tourism in Utah. In addition, she has interned at the Huntington Library, University of Oklahoma Press, and has literally run the museum in her hometown of Lake City, Colorado, since she was eleven. Stop by this summer if you are in the area, it’s worth the visit.

By Mette Flynt

February 25th marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Hal Rothman, an influential scholar of the American West, environment, and public history. Although I never had the privilege of meeting him, I came to know Rothman through his work, particularly his seminal 1998 study of Western tourism, Devil’s Bargains. This work made a lasting impression on how people understand tourism, leisure, and recreation not only in the West but also in the broader world of twentieth century travel.

In the final pages of Devil’s Bargains, Rothman remarked, “I hope to offer them [young scholars] a road map that, in the best scholarly tradition, they will soon discard for one of their own making” (p. 423). Keeping that in mind, I would like to examine how others have engaged with Rothman’s book, bringing new energy to the study of tourism. In many ways, Rothman’s legacy continues just as much in his own ideas as in the debates and discussions that those ideas sparked.

First, Rothman reminded readers that tourism matters in understanding the twentieth- century West. While he certainly was not the first to think about tourism historically, Rothman revitalized the subject. In his wake, others have illustrated the importance of tourism in Western history. Each has explored a facet of Rothman’s array of subjects: Michael Childers and Annie Gilbert Coleman focus on skiing; Mark Spence and Jerry Frank trace national parks’ history; Bonnie Christensen and Connie Chiang unpack communities’ transitions to tourism; Alicia Barber and the contributors of Imagining the Big Open study the ties between image and experience; and Mansel Blackford builds on the themes of dependency and colonization.

Devil’s Bargains also provided a toolkit and language for thinking about and interpreting tourism. Rothman’s framework extended beyond the history of the American West in its influence. For example, his concept of the neo-native—a newcomer who moved to a tourist town because of its newfound appeal—persists. Readers find his ideas in Dina Berger’s work on Mexican tourism, Blake Harrison’s book on travel in Vermont, Mark C.J. Stoddart’s study of the Canadian ski industry, and J. Mark Souther’s New Orleans on Parade.

Lastly, Rothman’s work generated as many questions as it answered. He made bold claims about broad patterns that he saw throughout the story of tourism of the West. One was the idea that tourism is a devil’s bargain: seeking economic opportunity, communities embrace tourism only to be disappointed and to lose their cultural identities. Historians continue to ask if a devil’s bargain best describes Western tourism. Looking at tourism on a regional scale, Lawrence Culver, Kathleen Brosnan, David Wrobel, and William Philpott see a more nuanced local experience in the tourist communities. Winners and losers, culprits and victims were not always clear.

In these ways, Rothman succeeded in providing a road map of Western tourism that others could accept, consider, or redraw.

Rothman ends Devil’s Bargains with a mixture of brief anecdotes about the intersections of history, tourism, and his own travels. For instance, he connects his book to the local/neonative divide that he observed in a tourist town’s grocery checkout line. This ending reflects Rothman’s approach to studying the American West. As a mentor, public historian, journal editor, and author, Rothman pushed people to find the bigger picture, placing the mundane within broader and provocative contexts. His challenge for Westerners today remains a call to find stories of connection within an often-fractured West.

One thought on “Devil’s Bargains in a New Century: The Legacy of Hal Rothman

  1. J. Mark Souther

    This is a nice tribute to Hal Rothman, whose work indeed influenced my thinking about the role of tourism in reshaping communities. However, although I appropriated his term “neo-native” and found some compelling parallels to Rothman’s West in my work on New Orleans, I was also careful to call attention to what I saw as significant ways in which the impact of tourism was more checkered than I think Rothman allowed in Devil’s Bargains. This strand of my argument is best seen in my assessment of tourism’s effect on jazz.

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