Review Essay: Surfing and Swimming Histories in the Radical History Review

My review essay “Disturbed Waters: New Currents in the History of Water Sport,” Radical History Review 125, (May 2016) appeared in a special issue of the journal edited by Peter Alegi and Brenda Elsey, focusing on the theme of “Historicizing the Politics and Pleasure of Sport”.

I review studies on swimming and surfing history which open up new perspectives on the relationship between politics, culture, and gender. The books under review are:RHR_125_cover.png

  • Lisa Bier, Fighting the Current: The Rise of American Women’s Swimming, 1870 – 1926, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011).
  • Scott Laderman, Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).
  • Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai‘i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011).

These water sports can be seen historically as political and determined by local, national, and global conditions. Each study historicizes the politics of aquatic pleasure. Bier’s Fighting the Current foregrounds American women’s swimming challenge to the social order. Walker’s Waves of Resistance looks to the contested nature of the surf zone in reclaiming Hawaiian surfing “traditions” and masculinities marginalized by Western cultural appropriation. Laderman’s Empire in Waves documents the Americanization of surfing, how it expanded globally as a politically ambiguous cultural practice, and carried with it the seeds of US imperialism.

Alegi and Elsey’s introduction to this sports history issue of the journal can be downloaded from here.



Author: Glen Thompson

Surfer and academic historian

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