and for middle-class American families is certainly more the exception than the rule. Middle-class life is by definition aspirational, and is shaped by values stressing numerous kinds of mobility: economic, educational, status and geographic (Shore 2003a). Geographically middle-class Americans are on the move, and often conceive of their lives in relation to the different places that they live in at different stages of their lives. Middle-class Americans do not generally expect to live in the same community or surrounded by a dense network of extended family for most of their lives. Lacking stable social frameworks throughout the life-course means that identity updating becomes problematic as life becomes a sequence of disconnected scenarios rather than a coherent process of social evolution.
In such an environment, annual reunion traditions can provide a surrogate community compensating in part for the social stability missing in everyday life. The annual “return” to a camp or a homestead can help provide a basic sense of continuity and a stable framework against which one’s identity cane be periodically updated and made meaningful. Camp meetings have the advantage of combining the family reunion tradition with a deeply-felt spiritual one. In the context of Salem, the Christian messages of fellowship in Christ and spiritual renewal are easy to integrate with the social message of family reunion and revitalization, and the two idioms are often conflated in campers’ talk.
But the effectiveness of camp meeting for identity updating does not necessarily require that the reunion tradition be a religious gathering. The kinds of memory affects one sees at Salem are also possible in other kinds of reunion traditions. For example my sister’s family participates in a non-religious reunion tradition at the Bear’s Lair in Northern California, an annual summer reunion of U.C. Berkeley alums that has been attracting families to pitch their tents at the same mountain retreat every summer for 50 years now. Families with a long history of attendance at the camp appear to experience a similar sense of biographical continuity through the camp experience as Salem campers do. Only future comparative fieldwork at these secular camps will enable us to know whether such secular reunion traditions have the same power as religiously based reunions to enhance people’s sense of identity coherence at a time when such coherence is in short supply.