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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 808-817
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American Travel Revisited
These three recent studies of American travel writing, all focusing mainly on the nineteenth century, share an emphasis on what is particularly American—as opposed to British or European—about the travelers and their perceptions. Each book questions how nineteenth-century American travelers compare to their Old World counterparts, how Americans projected their national biases and perspectives onto foreign lands and cultures, and how the experience of travel helped change the writers' sense of themselves as Americans, distinct from Europeans.
Bruce Harvey limits his analysis to antebellum writing in American Geographics: U.S. National Narratives and the Representation of the Non-European World, 1830–1865 (2001), but he includes unusual kinds of literature, from early American geography textbooks to treatises on the resettlement of African Americans in Africa. Larzer Ziff's Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780–1910 (2000) deals chronologically with five representative figures and their distinctive natures as American travelers: John Ledyard, a seaman on Captain Cook's last voyage; John Lloyd Stephens, principal discoverer of the Mayan ruins in Central America; Bayard Taylor, who popularized middle-class travel to Europe; and Mark Twain and Henry James, whose travel writing enriched their incomes and fed their fiction as well. In Exotic Journeys: Exploring the Erotics of U.S. Travel Literature, 1840–1930 (2001), Justin Edwards explores the relation between travel and sexual desire. Edwards organizes his study by destination: the South Seas, Europe and North Africa, and the ethnic neighborhoods of the modern American city, epitomized by New York's Harlem.
All three books remark on scholars' neglect of American travel writing from the 1700s and 1800s, despite the commercial success of the genre in those periods. The current popularity of contemporary travel writing, however, has been accompanied by an increasing interest by literary critics and cultural historians in earlier travel. Harvey, Ziff, and Edwards elevate the literary significance of American travel writing in its early days by relating it to America's experience as an immigrant nation; development in the shadow of Great Britain [End Page 808] and Europe; westward expansion; history of slavery, segregation, and internal migration; growth of the middle class and leisure travel; and emergence as an imperial power.
In his introduction, Ziff establishes linguistic and philosophical links between travel and theory. "The history of travel's relationship to writing extends so far back into antiquity that as one pursues it, the two blur into one another. To travel is to survey; 'theory' is derived from the Greek word for viewing a sight the way a traveler (in Greek a 'theor') does" (6). Travel has always provided a heightened intellectual perspective that comes from distancing oneself from one's own country and culture and immersing oneself in another.
This natural association of travel and theory is further exploited by Harvey, who relies on the terminology of theorists such as Michel Foucault. Edwards uses recent scholarship on primitivism and gender theory as well as classic studies by D. H. Lawrence and Leslie Fiedler on the homoerotic in American literature. Harvey locates his work not precisely in travel studies but in a related and even broader category, "spatial studies," an interdisciplinary field that he defines as "comprising, among other disciplines, literary analysis of travel texts, eco-criticism, urban sociology, architecture, and geography proper . . . a new vehicle in the academy to cross parochial lines and to posit new modes of historical and contemporary inquiry" (59). Despite these differences in approach, each of the three books takes advantage of the drama inherent in travel and of the often fascinating narratives and idiosyncratic personalities of the travelers themselves.
Harvey concentrates on the narrowest period, the 35 years culminating in the...