- Traveling Economies: American Women's Travel Writing
Literary cultural studies have attended at great length in recent years to travel writing and to the "economies" of authorship in the nineteenth century. By blending these areas of study, Jennifer Steadman recasts our understanding of both fields and enriches our perspectives on the complex lives of women whose work required travel. Eschewing the more traditional travel writing that emerged from the Grand Tour of Europe or the westward movement, Steadman analyzes the "ragged-edged" travel necessitated by work-related demands. Ragged-edged travelers were abetted by advanced transportation technologies that opened the possibilities of mobility to working women, but they also faced extraordinary challenges along the way. Typically needing to travel at bargain rates and alone, they often were isolated from other women who traveled with chaperones or in first-class railway cars or ship's accommodations. Thus Steadman's study avoids romanticizing mobility as pure freedom and agency, instead invoking the multileveled dangers and rewards of such travel, and the ways in which women's travel writing exposed the complex effects of mobility on individual lives.
By bringing together women of diverse backgrounds, races, fields of labor, political interests, and social ideologies, Steadman demonstrates the extent to which ragged-edged travel defined many nineteenth-century women's lives. Two of these writers—Nancy Prince and Amy Morris Bradley—explicitly evaluated the economies of travel in the 1850s. Prince traveled to Russia, [End Page 473] where she lived as a member of the Russian Imperial Court, and Bradley left Maine to take a position as a governess in Costa Rica. By contrasting the African American Prince and Euro-American Bradley, Steadman reveals the additional risks of the Black woman traveler who decides to leave her country and emigrate to an unknown environment, but also the impoverished white woman's desperation that leads to her decision to embark on an equally distant new home. What brings these two narratives together is the women's sense that traveling is essential to their economic survival. While Prince has the security of being a married woman, she must negotiate her status as an oppressed woman in her own country with the czarist court's racial tolerance, while Bradley is grilled by her shipmates as to why she is traveling alone. Both narratives capture the growing cultural anxiety that circulated around women's increased mobility and their willingness to express their appreciation of such mobility in print.
But Anne Newport Royall's audacity and willingness to criticize national politics through her travel writing was both far more explicit—and far more costly to her. Royall was an early newspaperwoman (publisher and primary writer of the newspaper Paul Pry in the early 1830s) and a prolific travel writer. That the daughter of a servant could become a politically active, threatening voice in local and national politics through her political travel exposés marks the extent to which the idea of the woman traveler and writer threatened conventional ideologies about women's social and political roles in early nineteenth-century society. Royall's poverty and iron will perhaps most clearly capture the nature of ragged-edged travel. Undertaken specifically to improve her economic condition, and with a prescient sense of how important travel writing would become in the literary marketplace, Royall's travels were accomplished by carriage, horse, and on foot. The image of her bloodied feet, blistered from miles of walking, is both poignant and pointed in its insistence on imaging the American woman as in economic peril and yet intrepid. But Royall's text went far beyond the norms for travel writing—when she included images of alms houses, penitentiaries, and asylums as part of her critique of America's failure to attend to the needs of its citizens, she challenged the vast propaganda machine of America's progress. By framing Royall's narrative with the trial she faced for charges of being a "common scold," Steadman exposes the gendered consequences of travel writing (being a "scold...