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Great American Travel Writing, 1780-1910

by Larzer Ziff

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-300-08236-3
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A deeply intelligent, chin-in-hand rumination on the nature of American travel-writing, or at least a selection thereof, from the Revolutionary War to the outbreak of WWI, by literary historian Ziff (Writing in the New Nation, not reviewed).

Examining an emblematic group composed of John Ledyard, John Lloyd Stephens, Bayard Taylor, Mark Twain, and Henry James, the author tracks the evolution of their travel pieces from early descriptive reports of discovery to distinct literary narratives. In all five, he finds elements that both reflected and embellished the national character, powerful writing that celebrated the exotic but also possessed “the author’s capacity to present his heightened self-awareness in a manner that serves to move readers to question the unexamined familiarities of their own lives.” This self-awareness, in turn, often prompted scalding glances at their own country. In Ledyard, who wrote a narrative of sailing with Captain Cook, then described traveling through Russia and Siberia in the years directly after the Revolutionary War, Ziff (English/Johns Hopkins Univ.) finds the most resolutely democratic of the five writers, a man who optimistically foresaw in the American experience a universal liberation of mankind. Stephens endeavored to bestow on the Americas their own monumental past by returning from Mexico with the first news of Chichén Itzá and Tulum. Taylor, the first to write about travel on a shoestring, later specialized in road-to-empire swagger, which made him an ideal companion for Commodore Perry. Twain hated travel-writing but brought to it the kind of horse sense that made readers check their preconceptions, challenged as well by his biting satires of racial prejudice. For James, it was “the European past flowing into the American present” that would complete the making of a nation.

Written in a velvety professorial voice, these excellent vignettes of five exemplary travelers provide a steady pulse of context and critique, amply demonstrating how travel literature helped shape a national identity. (21 color illustrations)