- Through Others' Eyes: Published Accounts of Antebellum Montgomery, Alabama by Jeffrey C. Benton
In the genre of travel literature with a focus on early central Alabama, Montgomery in particular, Jeffrey Benton excels with an unusual ability to capture the perspectives of an eclectic assembly of visitors to the developing river town destined to become the state capitol. With a concentration on the antebellum years, Benton introduces the reader to viewpoints of twenty-seven travelers and their personal accounts of their visits. Although Benton refers to himself as a compiler, he is much more. With an incredible depth of knowledge and with skillful insight into the times, he enables readers to know something of the cultural context within which travelers chronicled their visits. The prologue is helpful for such background.
In another venue ("Architreats" at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, February 25, 2015) the author described the diversity among the antebellum visitors, citing that sixteen were British, eight were American, one was French, one was Hungarian, [End Page 94] and one was German. Three were women: Amelia Murray, Harriett Martineau, and Anne Royall. They came to Montgomery as educators, ministers of the gospel, retired diplomats, members of Parliament, military and naval officers, newspaper men, and entertainers. Each came with a compelling interest: to see the flora, to take note of the unique geological formations, to study social behavior or to observe and understand the plantation and slave communities. Many, if not all, came with the intent to publish in book form or in other media. Their recorded perspectives from early settlement to the beginning of the Civil War throw light on the life of Montgomerians.
Visitors made comments along the way on the difficulties of traveling by stage, steamboat, or by rail. They noted the disgusting accommodations and the nauseating cuisine and discovered that the river town had its share of violent confrontations punctuated with gambling and drinking. Unlike current-day Montgomery, with its renewal and revitalization, visitors found the town to be lacking in polish and sophistication. It had, indeed, emerged from the wild Southwest.
Anne Royall visited Montgomery in spring 1830. As a widow, in order to financially sustain herself, Royall wrote about her travels and thousands of people along the way. Her idiosyncrasies and prejudices made reading her accounts riveting. James Stuart visited in March 1830. Stuart's political career in Scotland had suffered as a result of a duel in which he killed Sir Alexander Boswell. Three years visiting America resulted in a popularly-read publication. Upon leaving Montgomery by stage, Stuart was enthralled by the sight of land deemed as "prairie." The most lengthy selection of Jeff Benton's travelers to Montgomery is William Howard Russell, who visited in May 1861. Russell was sent to Montgomery as a war correspondent by The Times of London to cover the Civil War, and he arrived well-qualified and experienced.
One thing is for sure. Jeff Benton has rendered an important service to those seriously interested in the early civic and social life of Montgomery. The observations of visitors when exposed to the institution of slavery are particularly illuminating. One should be [End Page 95] prepared for another reality when reading through Benton's compilations. Such reading cannot be done dispassionately, but only with full engagement. [End Page 96]