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Dr Elsa Devienne


Department: Humanities

I joined Northumbria University in 2019 as lecturer in US history. My research lies at the intersection of urban history, environmental history, 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, The Sand Rush: An Environmental History of the Los Angeles’s Beaches (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 (awarded every two years). I am also the author of several 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.    

I regularly appear on radio, podcast and tv shows to speak about my research. Most recently, 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 second-year option module "Affluence & Anxiety: US History from 1920 to 1960." 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.

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-chair the Award subcommittee and co-lead our sustainability initiative Green BAAS. I was treasurer and vice-president of RUCHE, the French branch of the European Society of Environmental History, for several years (2012-2019).

In a previous life, I was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities at Princeton University and an Assistant Professor in American History and American studies at Université Paris Nanterre in France. I hold a PhD in history from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris). 

Elsa Devienne

Research Themes and Scholarly Interests

My first book, The Sand Rush: An Environmental History of Los Angeles’s Beaches (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, The Sand Rush 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. The English version of the book is under contract with Oxford University Press. 

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. 

Key Publications

  • Please visit the Pure Research Information Portal for further information
  • In Practice: Teaching Environmental American Studies in a Time of Crisis: Decarbonizing the US History Survey: The Case of “Postwar Affluence”, Quinn, E., Devienne, E., Roane, J., Young, A., Okoth, C., Wills, J., Henderson, F. Dec 2021, In: Journal of American Studies
  • Places and Cultures of Capitalism: Histories from the Grassroots, Devienne, E., Diamond , A. 22 Mar 2021, In: Transatlantica
  • La ruée vers le sable. Une histoire environnementale des plages de Los Angeles au XXe siècle, Devienne, E. 5 Mar 2020
  • La ruée vers le sable : Une histoire environnementale du littoral de Los Angeles au XXe siècle, Devienne, E. 2020
  • Spectacular Bodies: Los Angeles Beach Cultures and the Making of the “California Look” (1900s-1960s), Devienne, E. Dec 2019, In: European Journal of American Studies
  • 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
  • « Il y a des lois sur la plage ! »: Régulation et surveillance des comportements sur les plages de Los Angeles, années 1910-1970, Devienne, E. 2017, In: Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales
  • Plages de la discorde, Bidet, J., Devienne, E. 2017, In: Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales
  • La question raciale sur le littoral de Los Angeles (années 1920-années 1970), Devienne, E. 2016, In: Vingtieme Siecle: Revue d'Histoire


  • History PhD
  • History MA

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