The Culture of Summer Camp

By Stuart Mitchner 

Summer camps in literature are not easy to track down. One that comes immediately to mind is J.D. Salinger’s Camp Hapworth, from which 7-year-old Seymour Glass pens the longest summer camp letter ever written. The last work by Salinger released for public consumption, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which runs between pages 32-113 in the June 19, 1965 New Yorker, offers a unique — which is to say Salingeresque — view of camp life at Hapworth Lake in Maine. Then there’s Humbert Humbert’s favorite camper, Dolores Haze. Readers of Vladimir Nabokov’s landmark 1955 novel Lolita and viewers of the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film may recall Lo’s eventful stay at all-girl Camp Q in the Adirondacks, where she is deflowered by the camp mistress’s son Charlie, the only male on the scene.  

Having never been to a summer camp, my sense of the experience depends on films like Moonrise Kingdom (2012), where two 12-year-old misfits meet at Camp Ivanhoe, fall in love, and survive adult interference. Glimpses of camp life can also be found in the movie version of Herman Wouk’s 1958 best-seller Marjorie Morningstar, which was filmed at the real-life Camp Cayuga, where the heroine of the title, played by Natalie Wood, works as a counselor. Wouk provides a more detailed look at camp life in his first novel City Boy (1948), in which a Jewish kid from the Bronx named Herbie Bookbinder spends a summer at Camp Manitou in the Berkshires. In the 1951 film version, Herbie is transformed into a girl named Betty played by Margaret O’Brien, with the title changed to Her First Romance. 

Camps Ovation and Walden

The place to go online for everything you want or need to know on the subject is Summer Camp Culture (www.summercampculture.com). There I learned that in Anna Kendrick’s memoir Scrappy Little Nobody (Touchstone 2016), the singer and Academy Award-nominated actress writes about the making of Camp (2003), her first film, where she plays Fritzi, “a weird girl with greasy hair and terrible clothes,” who goes from being the nerdy loser to the cut-throat star of Camp Ovation’s production of Company.

I also learned from Summer Camp Culture that David Sax’s The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter (PublicAffairs 2016) contains an epilogue about the author’s return visit to Camp Walden in Ontario: “Very little had changed since I left Walden half a lifetime ago. The buildings looked the same; the water had the same metallic taste; the crickets chirped the same staccato tune. Towels and clothes still hung from the front of each cabin’s laundry line, and music blared on loudspeakers throughout camp, announcing the next activity. Boys sprinted from place to place, seemingly for no reason other than they could, and girls made up songs while braiding one another’s hair. Campers still read Archie comics and made macrame bracelets. They even dressed in the same outfits: Teva sandals, baggy Roots sweatpants, college T-shirts. The conversations I overheard could have been plucked from any summer over the past half-century.”

Netflix Campers

Two summer camp celebrities are appearing in two recent Netflix shows. Noah Schnaap, who still attends Camp Echo Lake in upstate New York, plays Will Byers, the boy who comes back from the Upside Down in season two of Stranger Things. In a video filmed at the camp, where he’s been going since he was 7, Noah thanks the fans who have written him “from all over the world” and talks about having fun playing soccer and baseball and tennis and swimming in the lake. Star of the otherworldly OA, Brit Marling says she was sent home from summer camp because the stories she was telling were scaring her bunkmates. Speaking at the Vulture Festival, she explained, “I was staying at a sleepaway girls camp and the cabin was made of wood with eyes in it. I started telling the other girls in the cabin this ghost story. I told them the knots in the wood were eyes of ghosts and this ground was where there had been a massacre and everyone in the massacre was staring down at us in the eyes of the cabin.” The OA has been renewed for a second season and a third season is planned for Stranger Things. 

While most summer camp books are geared toward tweens and teens, an exceptions is Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp (Riverhead 2005), a collection edited by Eric Simonoff, a onetime literary agent who spent ten straight summers at Joseph & Betty Harlam Camp. The contributors include Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, David Sedaris, ZZ Packer, Kevin Canty, and Gahan Wilson.

Mandy Berman’s Perennials (Random House 2017), which The New York Times Book Review hails as “a captivating debut novel,”  is set at Camp Marigold, where Fiona and Rachel first meet, become friends, and then return six years later as counselors. While Fiona likes being a counselor to 9-year-olds because she can “talk about real things with them: their lives at home and their friends and the things they like to do — ride horses or swim or dance or draw,” Rachel says her girls talk only about boys. The reviewer finds that “Berman skillfully captures the details and rituals of camp. It’s a place where freedom from the roles young people play at home lets them become who they are. And where, for those who return year after year, a girl can retrace her steps, see all the parts of herself past and present, with the occasional glimpse into the future.”

Meg Wolitzer’s best-seller The Interestings (Riverhead 2016) has received wide acclaim. According to O, The Oprah Magazine, this “lovely, wise book” begins with the main character an outsider at an arts camp who is “accepted into a clique of teenagers with whom she forms a lifelong bond. Through well-tuned drama and compassionate humor, Wolitzer chronicles the living organism that is friendship.”

Letters Home

Typical of the summer camp genre are Abrams paperbacks P.S. I Hate It Here: Kids’ Letters from Camp and the sequel P.S. I Still Hate It Here, both edited by Diane Falanga, a mother of two, who put the books together after receiving her 8-year-old daughter’s letters home from camp. San Diego Family Magazine says, “This collection of kids’ actual letters home brings back all the hilarity and homesickness of sleepaway camp. Each image displays children’s creative spelling, their pleading to be picked up or for permission to stay ‘just two more weeks.’ Parents and seasoned campers will enjoy reading this collection and laughing at (or commiserating with) these familiar dilemmas.”

Probably the most popular purveyor of the Jewish summer camp experience was Allan Sherman’s hit single “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” about life at Camp Grenada sung to the tune of Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” The record reached No. 2 on the 1963 Billboard chart. A typical chorus is: “All the counselors hate the waiters/And the lake has alligators/And the head coach wants no sissies/So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.”

The Missing Letter

Still, nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to J.D. Salinger’s vision of life at Camp Hapworth by way of a fabulously well-read 7-year-old channeling Jane Austen and Vivekananda. This literary tour de force in the guise of a letter is a stunning act of imagination in the way it brazenly and joyfully creates its own language and its own voice. Twenty years ago a small publisher was planning to bring it out in book form when the author was scared off by churlish denizens of the lit chat establishment. The world has been promised publication of new work by Salinger sometime before 2020, but so far his heirs have been unwilling to release it.