Dog Days Classics: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. - Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream I know this quote is probably not the ontological narrative or historiographical prose you expect to see at the beginning of one of these posts.  My passion is cultural and intellectual history, but when I developed this interest as an … [Read more...]

Slouching in White: Joan Didion and the Legacy of the Late Sixties

“One last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out,” Joan Didion concluded with an air of unassuming menace in her 1968 essay collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem. As the party ended, the 1960s closed with the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the rise of angrier more militant Chicano, Feminist, and Black Power Movements, and the reactionary moves of Nixon’s “southern strategy." More than a few historians, Rick Perlstein among them, have noted the splintering of American culture. None of these examples even includes the carnage of the civil rights movement from Emmet Till (1955), whose memory Little Wayne recently besmirched, to the slain Mississippi civil … [Read more...]

“Clearly, Someone Is Controlling This Here Water”: Rango and the Recession

“With great privilege comes great responsibility.” So says the corrupt old tortoise who runs the town of Dirt in the new animated film Rango. Not long ago, Americans flocked to theaters to hear the truism that with great power comes great responsibility; in one of the biggest hits of the immediate post-9/11 era, Peter Parker realized that he had no choice but to crusade against evil. Americans wanted to believe that being a superpower (or having superpowers, in Spiderman’s case) meant one simply had to go out and beat up the bad guys. The good guy-bad guy matrix is more muddled today than it was in 2002, and the venal mayor of Dirt knows it – he engineers an economic crisis to swindle the … [Read more...]

Hollywood without Hollywood: Las Vegas from the Periphery

For the architect or urban designer, comparisons of Las Vegas with others of the world’s “pleasure zones” – with Marienbad, the Alhambra, Xanadu, and Disneyland, for instance – suggest that essential to the imagery of pleasure zone architecture are lightness, the quality of being an oasis in a perhaps hostile context, heightened symbolism, and the ability to engulf the visitor in a new role: for three days one may imagine oneself a centurion at Caesars Palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera rather than a salesperson from Des Moines, Iowa or an architect from Haddonfield, New Jersey. -- Learning from Las Vegas, pg. 53   Writing in 1977, Robert Venturi, … [Read more...]

A Boy Named Sue, on the Moon

Las Vegas looks like Myrtle Beach if the sandblasted and tacky South Carolina vacation town were relocated to the surface of the moon. You half-expect to see space junk or a broken down Mars rover lying among the cinderblocks and desert flora of the city's numerous abandoned lots. A major part of this effect owes to the exuberant 1950s atomic age kitsch that defines much of the strip and downtown LV; the stylized and flamboyant signage and jagged architectural lines of hotels and casinos rise up to slash the big western sky, with the sleekness and bold geometry of a Miro painting or Bauhaus chair but without the tendency toward sparseness and severity in much modernism. The city also has … [Read more...]

Leaving Las Vegas: Bringing the Urban History Association to Sin City

Ahhh … the smell of weak coffee, the brightly advertised "free continental breakfast," and the indignity of pocketing more fruit than reasonable considering the "free" part... it can only be time for the Urban History Association’s biennial conference. This year’s gathering (under the theme “Sustainable Cities?”) took place in Elvis’s home away from home, Las Vegas. The onslaught of ravenous bespectacled academics struck fear in the hearts of even the most depraved Las Vegan (though one cannot be sure if that refers to full time residents or the millions of tourists who visit the desert city).  Who knows how much historians lost at the tables or at the sports book? (“So would it be possible … [Read more...]