Literature: Travel Narratives
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, travel accounts, especially those reporting on observations of the United States, were extremely popular. For example, in "Travels in North-America, In the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782," the Marquis de Chastellux wrote:
…I got on horseback, and penetrated afresh into the woods, mounting and descending very high mountains, until I found myself on the borders of a lake, so solitary and concealed, that it is only visible through the trees with which it is surrounded. . . . I was now in the wildest and most desert country I had yet passed through; my imagination was already enjoying this solitude, and my eyes were searching through the woods for some extraordinary animals, such as elks or caribous (supposed to be the same as the rein deer) when I perceived, in an open spot, a quadruped which seemed very large. I started with joy, and was advancing slowly, but on a nearer observation of the monster of the desert, to my great regret I discovered it to be a horse peaceably browsing the grass; and the opening, no other than a field belonging to a new settlement. On advancing a few steps farther, I met two children of eight or ten years old, returning quietly from school, carrying under their arms a little basket, and a large book. Thus was I obliged to lay aside all the ideas of a poet or a sportsman, to admire this new country, where one cannot travel four miles without finding a dwelling . . .
In 1782 St. John de Crvecoeur, veteran of the French and Indian War, published his impressions of America in a book, Letters from an American Farmer, which was widely read in Europe; a French translation of the work is available in the collection. Another Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled in the United States for nine months in 1831. Based on notebooks of his observations, in 1835 he published Democracy in America, which is still widely read. A French version of Democracy in America is also available in the collection.
Read the impressions of American social and political life from one of these works and consider the following questions.
- What does the popularity of these literary works suggest about Europeans’ interest in American life? How do you explain this interest? Might Europeans have been equally interested in other areas of the world? How could you find out whether your answer to this question is correct?
- What preconceptions about American did the writer bring to the narrative? What conclusions did he draw? Based on your knowledge of America at the time the author was writing, how accurate were these preconceptions and conclusions?
- What appeal do these "travel accounts" have today? Why?
- Are contemporary travel accounts widely read today? How do these compare with the works of Chastellux, Crèvecoeur, and Tocqueville? Using contemporary and historical examples, explain why travel writing appeals to some readers.