Paradise Blues

Travels through American Environmental History

Christof Mauch
translated from the original German by Lucy Jones

Paradise Blues is an unconventional history of the United States of America, an unusual travel guide that follows and renders visible the country’s paths of nature, history and civilisation. Christof Mauch is a leading German historian who has spent many years in the US and in this book he attempts, from a European perspective, to grasp the diversity of American culture and the transformation of its environments, combining travel reporting with nature writing, personal observation and philosophical reflection. Mauch seeks the familiar in unfamiliar places and the curious in places that seem common and well-known. 

The journey begins in tiny Wiseman, Alaska and the final portrait is of Portland, Oregon, famously America’s most sustainable city. In between, Mauch’s wanderings in space and time, his serendipitous and planned encounters with places and people, bring to light the tension and ambivalence in most Americans’ attitudes towards their often-perilous environment, the intertwining throughout history of valuation, conservation and destruction. Interactions between human beings and the environment have settled like sediment down the centuries and may be read in the present – in the form of landscapes and collective memory, in bodies of water and the earth’s strata, tree rings and human cells. One of Mauch’s dominant themes is that the grand hopes and bitter disappointments of the American paradise are not equally distributed – the blues is the voice of the dispossessed and disadvantaged; and here environmental injustice toward Black, Indigenous and other marginalised people is a recurring and haunting motif.

This is a book of melancholia and hope – Mauch exposes the beauty, the imperilment, at times the wreckage, of the American environment. And he shows us that, more powerfully than abstract ideas, governmental edicts or technological forces, stories reveal the infinite discoveries to be made in humans’ relationship to nature – in beautiful landscapes where danger lurks as well as in visions and behaviours that change the world and ecosystems. Above all, stories demonstrate that where we come from and where we are going are intimately connected and therefore nothing has to remain as it is. The stories told in Paradise Blues demonstrate that vulnerabilities and pressures are almost always political constructions and, for that reason, it must be possible to deconstruct them. 

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“Mauch has always been great intellectual company, but in Paradise Blues he excels himself.  This dazzling portrait of America reveals a nation that is neither monolithic nor polarized.  Instead, we see the intricate interplay between many peoples and their particular landscapes from an agricultural Eden above the Arctic circle to Disneyworld, from Memphis’s radicalized development patterns to Portland’s ecofreaks. Seldom is such deep scholarship combined with such compassionate storytelling. Paradise Blues lets us ride in the passenger seat, while Christof Mauch shows us the stunning beautiful, complex, troubled country beyond American stereotypes.”

Julia Adeney Thomas

“The rise of the United States from semi-wilderness to superpower is the foundational story of modernity. Usually, its history is told as a grand narrative of progress or failure—always monumental in scope, simple in conclusions. Paradise Blues, in contrast, eschews the big picture and provides a more complex narrative, focused on a series of American communities. He approaches their histories as a happy traveller looking for people to talk to, novels and reports to read, and with an eye for telling detail. The result is wonderfully engaging and revealing. In Mauch’s vision Americans may be guilty of ruining many places, but often the ruin is mixed with encouraging triumphs. Highly recommended as a new kind history for a world seeking hope.”

Donald Worster

“A colourful road trip that opens readers’ eyes to the many layers of ‘blues’ that have shaped the American continent, its history and environment.”

Dorothee Brantz

“In Mauch’s tales, each landscape becomes a tapestry of forces and visions, a journey that spans temporal dimensions that are both close and profound. Meticulously researched and delicately personal, this book will take you on a journey and travel with you, transforming the American landscape into a rich and unpredictable epiphany of stories.”

Serenella Iovino


Christof Mauch studied at Tübingen University and King’s College London and majored in German literature, theology, philosophy and history. He received his Dr.phil. in German literature from Tübingen and his Dr. phil. habil. in Modern History from the University of Cologne. From 1999 to 2007, Mauch headed the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. He has been Chair of American Cultural History at LMU Munich since 2007; and Director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society at LMU since 2009. Mauch was the first Chairperson (now: President) of the Board of Directors of the International Consortium for Environmental History Organizations, ICEHO (2009–2011) and he served as Vice President and President of the European Society for Environmental History (2009–2013). In 2013 he was named Honorary Professor and Senior Fellow at the Center for Ecological History of Renmin University in China. Mauch has been a visiting professor at universities in Australia, Austria, Canada, India and Poland. In 2020 he was the Carl Schurz Memorial Professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison (USA). He has received numerous international awards for his scholarly contributions and engagement, including the Distinguished Career in Public Environmental History Award from the American Society for Environmental History, the Teaching Innovation Award from the LMU Munich, and the Planetary Award from the Institute for Future Competences.

Mauch has authored, edited or co-edited over forty books in the fields of Modern German Literature; US, German and transatlantic history; and the environmental humanities. Paradise Blues is his most personal book, drawing on his travels through the United States over a period of fifteen years.


List of Illustrations and Maps


Wiseman, Alaska

Malibu, California

Memphis, Tennessee

St Thomas, Nevada

Dodge City, Kansas


Walt Disney World, Florida

Portland, Oregon



Publication date, January 2024

ISBN 978-1-912186-78-5 (PB) £28
e-ISBN 978-1-912186-79-2 (OPEN ACCESS)