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Dr Elsa Devienne

Assistant Professor

Department: Humanities

I joined Northumbria University in 2019, having previously taught at Princeton University, Université Paris Nanterre, Science Po Paris and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. My research lies at the intersection of urban studies, the environmental humanities, and the history of gender, body, and sexuality, with a focus on the 20th century. I am particularly interested in the history of Americans’ intense engagement with their coastlines, from the 19th-century beach-bathing boom until today’s climate crisis and its catastrophic consequences for coastal communities.

My first book, La ruée vers le sable: une histoire environnementale des plages de Los Angeles (Sorbonne Editions, 2020), won the 2021 Willi Paul Adams Award awarded by the Organization of American Historians for the best book on American history published in a language other than English. A translated and updated version with a new epilogue came out with Oxford University Press in 2024 under the title Sand Rush: The Revival of the Beach in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. I am also the author of several award-winning articles published in academic journals in the US and Europe, including in The Journal of Urban HistoryThe European Journal of American Studies, California History, Vingtième Siècle. Revue d'histoire and Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales.    

My research has been supported by grants from the Fulbright Program, the Princeton-Mellon Initiative for Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities, the British Association of American Studies, the FACE Foundation, the Historical Society of Southern California, the Ahmanson Foundation and the American Society for Environmental History, among others. 

I regularly appear on radio, podcast and tv shows to speak about my research. In 2022, I was featured on Arte's tv-show "Making History" to talk about "The Parasol and Beach Culture." I also use my expertise to write about topical issues for a general audience. You can find an op-ed (in French) I wrote for Libération in reaction to the 2020 Australian bushfires here, a short article in English in reaction to the 2020 Covid beach closures here, and a short article on the early 20th-century bathing suit controversies published for Metropolitics here.

At Northumbria, I contribute to American studies and history modules, including the first-year core module "From Sea to Shining Sea: US History from 1776 to 2008" and the third-year module "States of Nature: Peoples & Environments in the America." While teaching at Northumbria, I have reflected on the need to historicize the climate crisis and bring  environmental issues to the forefront of the American studies curriculum. I have developed these ideas in a recent essay ("Decarbonizing the US History Survey") published in the Journal of American Studies and a roundtable I edited for Transatlantica

I have been active in several learned societies. I am a member of the BAAS (British Association of American Studies) executive committee, where I co-lead our sustainability initiative, Green BAAS. I am also currently Regional Representative (France) for the European Society of Environmental History. 

Elsa Devienne

My first book, La ruée vers le sable : une histoire environnementale des plages de Los Angeles au XXe siècle (2020), recounts the formidable beach modernization campaign that transformed Los Angeles into one of the world’s greatest coastal metropolises, revealing how the city’s man-made shores served as a central locus for the reinvention of seaside leisure and the triumph of modern bodies. Integrating environmental, cultural, and social history, La ruée vers le sable not only uncovers how the Los Angeles coastline was constructed, but also how this major planning and engineering project affected the lives of ordinary city-dwellers and their relationship to nature. You can read a review published in Le Monde here, and a review in English here. A revised and updated English version of the book will come out in 2024 with Oxford University Press under the title Sand Rush: The Revival of the Beach in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

In parallel to my work on American coastlines, I have explored the history of the body, beauty, nudity, and muscularity. I have published several articles on these topics, including “The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Muscle Beach: Reassessing the Muscular Physique in Postwar America, 1940s-1980s” (Southern California Quarterly)  which was awarded the 2019 Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. Award by the Historical Society of Southern California. 

I am currently developing two new research projects. The first explores the history of anti-plastics activism in the US (and elsewhere) from the 1970s until today, focusing on its role in shaping mainstream environmentalist rhetoric and tactics and its relationships with connected fights, such as climate change, and environmental justice demands. The second looks at the history of pedestrianism and air pollution in US and UK cities from the perspective of parents and children. 

  • Please visit the Pure Research Information Portal for further information
  • Sand Rush: The Revival of the Beach in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles, Devienne, E. 1 May 2024
  • Introduction: Code Red for American Studies: Embedding Climate and Environmental Justice in the American Studies Curriculum, Devienne, E. 15 Dec 2022, In: Transatlantica
  • Urban Renewal by the Sea: Reinventing the Beach for the Suburban Age in Postwar Los Angeles, Devienne, E. 1 Jan 2019, In: Journal of Urban History
  • The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Muscle Beach: Reassessing the Muscular Physique in Postwar America, 1940s–1980s, Devienne, E. 2018, In: Southern California quarterly

  • History PhD
  • History MA

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