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  • Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity
  • Edlie L. Wong (bio)
John D. Cox . Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2005. 252 pp. ISBN 0-820-32765-4, $39.95.

By bringing the "travel paradigm" to bear upon a variety of fictional and nonfictional texts, Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity challenges the historically narrow definition of travel literature, and explores the critically overlooked significance of southern travel writings in the construction of national identity between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. "Travel," John Cox argues, "remained a central paradigm for imagining the freedoms granted to citizens of the new nation" (3). Five chapters of summary analyses pairing conventional and unlikely travel literature examine, in increasingly complex ways, the rhetorical construction of traveling narrative personas. Attentive to existing literary criticism, these roughly chronological chapters contextualize the central role "freedom to travel" played in the emergence of American national culture. Too often, according to Cox, critics and historians of early America turn to international travel texts to understand American culture and society, yet these regional narratives illuminate perhaps more richly the complex divisions within national identity (13). The book's exclusive focus on southern travel literature seeks to open up more dynamic understandings of the epistemological and ontological meanings of American identity as it challenges the isomorphism between personhood and place.

Building upon Mary Louise Pratt's pioneering work on the travel narrative genre, the first chapter looks to two "founding" travel narratives of nation during the critical years surrounding the Revolutionary War. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters of an American Farmer (1782) and William Bartram's Travels (1791) do not merely reflect their surroundings; they dynamically construct "the natural, political, social, and cultural environments" generally taken as the foundations of the travel narrative (20). While travel complicates the agrarian ideal scholars have come to identify with Crevecoeur's Letters, the "travel paradigm" critically elevates Bartram's lesser-read text to the heights of national significance more readily associated with Crevecoeur. Farming for Crevecoeur and Bartram characterizes a static attachment to land, while travel, variously depicted in the figure of the hunter and nomadic society, represents freedom of movement. These competing ideals (farmer and traveler) and ideologies (European and Native American) find synthesis in these texts through the creation of representative hybrid personas that embody the new American society. Travel, in short, encourages a unique American national consciousness that is inherently contrary to agrarian localism and rootedness. [End Page 736]

Chapter two, by far the most incisive, offers an important assessment of the racialized limits that constitute this uniquely American "freedom to travel." Slavery is antithetical to travel. It destroys travel's significance "as a sign and vehicle of freedom, subjectivity, and citizenship," yet slaves like Frederick Douglass moved in surreptitious ways that subverted the laws and ideologies of slavery. Such liberating forms of "self-directed travel" are contrasted to the "mere movement" of other slaves like the root man Sandy Jenkins, whose limited movement through circumscribed spaces is qualitatively not "emancipatory" travel (79, 94). Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave casts a more critical eye upon the freedom to travel even as his "slave travels," like those of Douglass, place pressure on the meaning of American national identity founded upon the ideology of free travel. Douglass's flight to northern freedom and professional travels as an abolitionist speaker amply illustrate this travel thesis, yet I wonder if Northrup's free travels and employment at Saratoga Springs's prestigious United States Hotel attest more to the exigencies of economic necessity and the service needs of actual leisure travelers than, as Cox argues, his status as an American traveler and citizen (69, 80). Once Northrup travels beyond New York his free papers become the only guarantee of his freedom, and his right to travel, unlike that of the two white men who betray him into slavery, is all too easily revoked. If travel is indeed the defining freedom of the American nation, as Cox argues, then Northrup illustrates how it is ultimately a racially circumscribed right.

A northern ideology of "home...


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