Literature: The Travel Narrative
Narratives of travel to far-away places have existed for almost as long as people have known how to write. One reason for the early popularity of this genre was that rulers wanted information about the lands over which they reigned. In addition, merchants were hungry for knowledge about how to reach the markets of Asia and Africa. During the age of exploration, the European public became avid readers of travel accounts as Europeans traveled to distant places, including the Americas. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, accounts of travels to the African and American interiors were popular in Europe.
John Filson’s “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke” was published in 1784, eight years before Kentucky separated from Virginia and was admitted as the fifteenth state in the union. The book, based on Filson’s travels through the wilderness, refers to Kentucky as a haven for immigrants searching for freedom. In the conclusion, Filson writes:
The recital of your happiness will call to your country all the unfortunate of the earth, who, having experienced oppression, political or religious, will there find a deliverance from their chains. To you innumerable multitudes will emigrate from the hateful regions of despotism and tyranny; and you will surely welcome them as friends, as brothers; you will welcome them to partake with you of your happiness.—Let the memory of Lycurgus, the Spartan legislator, who banished covetousness, and the love of gold from his country; the excellent Locke, who first taught the doctrine of toleration; the venerable Penn, the first who founded a city of brethren; and Washington, the defender and protector of persecuted liberty, be ever the illustrious examples of your political conduct. Avail yourselves of the benefits of nature, and of the fruitful country you inhabit.
Examine the “Table of Contents” of “The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke.” What sections of this narrative might be most likely to “call to your country all the unfortunate of the earth”? Which sections do you think would have been especially interesting to Europeans and white settlers in the eastern United States? Explain your answer. Read one of the sections about Indians. What attitudes towards Native Americans does Filson reveal? How do these attitudes affect the way in which you read his travel narrative?
Read the short pamphlet “Some Information Respecting America” by Thomas Cooper of Manchester, which gives a general description of Kentucky for prospective settlers based on his travels through the territory, ca. 1794.
- What are Cooper’s general observations about the land?
- What might immigrants expect?
- Based on this account, would you have advised a prospective European emigrant to settle in Kentucky? Why or why not?
In 1802 Andre Francois Michaux, member of the French Society of Natural History, toured the trans-Appalachian American west on behalf of the French Minister of the Interior. His book, Travels to the Westward of the Allegany Mountains, published in 1805, examined the agricultural production of the region and the commerce among the western states of Kentucky and Tennessee and those of the Atlantic seaboard. What might account for the French interest in the western United States prior to 1802?
Find and read a contemporary travel article about Kentucky. In what way is this article similar to the historical travel narratives? How is it different? In what ways have the criteria for a good travel narrative changed over time? What has remained the same?