A Critical Review of The Alps: A Cultural History

Andrew Beattie, author of The Alps: A Cultural History, published by Oxford University Press in 2006, paints a vivid picture of the beauty of the Alps and uses the beauty to explain why they have attracted so much attention over the centuries, but limits the material to consist mostly of foreign attitudes towards the region. His book aims to give a general overview of the mountain geography, though he did not include a single map along with his many other pictures, while simultaneously giving a brief history and imaginative tour through the regions that comprise the Alps. A substantial amount of geography is covered in only 237 pages and Beattie obviously sought to highlight the heritage of the region. However, it seems that Beattie oversimplified certain aspects by leaving out critical information concerning the main point of the book – the cultural history of the Alps – and by not explaining less important details.

The content was very predictable however, though the style was particularly irksome in that it was written in a very pedestrian way. This along with the book not being very comprehensive means that this book reads more like a short travel guide for those who are going to the region to do nothing other than ski or visit memorials or museums devoted to the foreign artists who visited there.

As engaging as the different chapters were, the book was not arranged in a way that made reading easier. Not only did the section titled “History” not progress in anything resembling chronological order, many of his examples do not include specific dates and there are certain topics that are mentioned only in passing and never expanded upon making it seem rather ill-considered to include it all. Without having a prior knowledge of European history, the “History” section makes little sense and requires additional research to clarify and leaves room for one to question the need to include certain passages.

Though titled “Landscapes of the Imagination,” the book lacks any sort of magic and excitement and is really only appealing to those with a preexisting inclination to that area. Beattie takes a very Anglo-centric approach and the emphasis of the writing is placed mostly on the English and their connections to the Alps through either artistic or philosophical movements or tourism. Very little is actually mentioned of the native inhabitants except in the different conquests of various empires listed in the history section. And even with this, Beattie never really tied together how those native to the Alps were affected by being dominated by different empires and how they were influenced by the tourism. Most of the focus was on those that travelled to the Alps and the impact that the Alps had on those visitors and their works of art whether it be literature, music, or painting. So, the inclusion of the last part titled “Visitors” was wholly unnecessary since that was the only thing that was really discussed throughout the books entirety. Perhaps a better title for the book would be A Cultural History of the Travelers to the Alps or An Overly Concise History of How the Alps Transformed into a Winter Playground for Wealthy Tourists.

The areas covered were fraught with turmoil and turbulence throughout their histories but the conflicts were described very passively and in a tone that felt as though the reader were being rushed along to what Beattie obviously thought were more important topics like the history of skiing and the famous settings for the fiction works of famous authors who visited.

Judging by the list of books given as his references, Beattie doesn’t care much for what other scholars think on the subject and didn’t bother to include any other opinions in his work. An overwhelming number of his sources included guidebooks, which explains at least why the readers of the book were treated like tourists preparing for a ski trip. And I noticed too that the longest section – History – had the fewest sources listed for it. His primary sources included only fiction dramas and novels, satire, and accounts of mountain climbers written by non-natives to the Alps and his secondary sources were those on the topics of Romantic writers, the world wars and Hitler, and others that did not directly relate to the culture of the people who lived in the Alps aside from the permanent residents from abroad. The text had very little to do with folkloric traditions and even though he included so many of the excursions of Englishmen to the Alps, did not bother to say how this impacted the local culture.

It is hard to form a final opinion of Beattie however as any sort of biographical information is not easily found. With only the titles of other books that he has written to go on, one can only assume that he is a very vague tour guide through various parts of the world and enjoys publishing imprecise descriptions of what one can expect to find on their travels.

WORKS CITED

Beattie, Andrew. The Alps: A Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.