- Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations by Cheryl J. Fish
Juxtaposing three mid-nineteenth-century travel texts by women, Cheryl Fish explores their “antebellum explorations” to locate many an intersection amidst the disparate starting points and trajectories of Nancy Prince, Mary Seacole, and Margaret Fuller. Writing autobiographically in the 1840s and 1850s through the lens of their travels, Prince, Seacole, and Fuller drew upon emerging conventions of travelogue. But each author also invoked and played with other generic expectations to produce hybrid texts that inserted themselves in the era’s public debates on race, immigration, abolition, and imperial expansion—although the extent to which their voices were heard remains a terrain only partially mapped.
Nancy Prince journeyed from her life as a free Black in Massachusetts to Russia and Jamaica and chronicled these trips through successive editions of A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. Mary Seacole ventured from her native Jamaica to become a medical practitioner and businessperson in Panama and then at the Crimean war front, constructing an “ironic picara” (65) as narrating persona in her Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. Margaret Fuller set her sights for the American Midwest, leaving her native New England and her Transcendentalist colleagues, as a privileged if not wealthy white traveler restless for new scenes and understanding, working through her journey in search of a new American identity in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. Each woman chronicled what Fish calls a “mobile subjectivity” (6). This study moves through the three texts in separate essays framed by an introduction and a “Coda” that highlight the texts’ converging and divergent paths.
The public act of writing for publication had motivations both material and intellectual for each writer, as did travel itself. Unlike the elite and usually male traveler whose self-representation had shaped a Euro/American norm of travel-writing, argues Fish, Seacole and Prince justified their travels by reference to what Prince called a “field of usefulness”—implying a geographic destination but foregrounding a vocational emphasis. For both women, benevolent work furnished justification for travel, while Fuller’s wandering is explicated in her text as consequent upon, and productive for, her dissatisfactions with the limits to social reform in her own milieu. For all three, the act of traveling and the act of writing about it raised questions about the meaning of home, while the conjunction of movement and voice highlights a gendered ambivalence at the heart of these texts. To write about their travels as (mostly) unattached women was both to expose and to justify what was an unusual, to say the least, enterprise.
The “mobile subjectivity” inscribed in these texts is rendered upon the images of the body at work and as subject to physical pain. Each writer negotiated distinctly with representations of physical presence, demonstrates Fish, enunciating travel and survival at the destination as hard and formative work while avoiding reduction of a gendered feminine and raced black or white body to the physicality of alleged sexual impropriety which so often disciplined single female bodies moving through social space. But this insistence on the physical, argues Fish, is in tension with an equally insistent disembodied narrative voice, sustained through resort to genre norms (for Prince, biblical allegory, images of suffering, missionary reports; for Seacole, the picaresque and adventure writing but also the medical tract; for Fuller, a rhetoric of “fitness” for the American frontier that drew upon eugenics). Moreover, the Romantic focus on unique individual experience undergoes revision with the inclusion of “decentering” narratives, other voices, mostly female voices—that collective or at least multiple presence that some have argued is characteristic of women’s autobiographical writing.
Linked by their critiques of racialist practices and by activist desires to motivate change, Prince, Seacole and Fuller of course experienced different mobilities contingent upon their very different positions in racialized socioeconomic hierarchies. Fuller’s relative privilege economically and as a white woman not only inoculated her against certain hardships and terrors of passage that Seacole and Prince narrated...