Best American Travel Writing

American Travel Writing

American Travel Writing

American travel writing as it is understood in twenty-first century terms, as a genre produced by writers who travel in order to write for a market in which travel writing sells, emerged in the 1820s and 1830s. Magazine and book publishers began to offer travel sketches that characteristically featured a literary observer who fashioned accounts of within the United States as well as Europe for the benefit of a bourgeois reading public. As travel became more accessible over the course of the nineteenth century, literary travel writing about Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the U.S. interior continued to gain popularity and attracted contributions from some of the major literary figures of the nineteenth century.

Travel writing in this modern sense depended not only on a ready marketplace, but also on the geopolitical stability and technological advances that made leisure travel possible. During the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), diplomatic business brought well-known Americans like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and the Adams family to Europe. Massachusetts native Elkanah Watson, to whom Foster R. Dulles refers, in Americans Abroad (1964), as “the first [American] tourist,” parlayed an errand on behalf of the Continental Congress to Franklin in Paris into more extensive travels and the book A Tour in Holland (1790). However, during the Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815) European travel became difficult, and American accounts of Europe became scarce. During that period, the combination of patriotism, territorial expansion, and the advent of the steamboat contributed to a proliferation of travel accounts of the American interior. The earliest, written in the wake of the French and Indian War (1755– 1763), offered topographical descriptions emerging from surveyors’ expeditions and diaries of military campaigns. In the decade following the Revolutionary War, three major travel accounts were published that continue to be read widely today: J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), William Bartram’s Travels (1791), and Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). These works combined the scientific impulse of the eighteenth century with the equally strong imperative of documenting the natural wonders of America for a curious and often skeptical European audience. These works are merely the most enduring examples of a broader craze of describing America for the benefit of Americans, foreigners, and potential settlers. Other examples include works by John Filson, Gilbert Imlay, and Jedidiah Morse.

The dual impact of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and Robert Fulton’s introduction of the steamboat (1807) prompted the next phase of travel within, and thus travel writing about, the North American continent. Lewis and Clark’s transcontinental expedition (1804–1806) and Zebulon Pike’s exploration of the trans-Mississippi West (1805– 1807) enacted on a grander scale the surveying trips of the mid–eighteenth century, with equally Grand textual results. However, even as Americans were being treated to accounts of heroic confrontations with the difficulties of western travel, steam propulsion made travel on the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, as well as down and, crucially, up the Mississippi, safer and less arduous. During this period accounts by domestic and foreign travelers proliferated, most notably Timothy Flint’s Recollections of the Last Ten Years (1826), James Fenimore Cooper’s Notions of the Americans (1828), and Washington Irving’s Tour on the Prairies (1835).

Following the Napoleonic Wars, further technological developments reduced the length of time required for Americans to make the transatlantic crossing. As a result, two competing versions of the so-called Grand Tour emerged in the 1820s. Not only should an educated person of means see the museums, churches, and ruins of Europe, but he or she should also embark on what Gideon Miner Davison in 1825 termed “The Fashionable Tour” of New England and the eastern Great Lakes. Davison’s , as well as works by Timothy Dwight, instructed readers on the picturesque satisfactions of Niagara Falls, Montreal, and Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, destinations made more accessible by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. A final strain of American travel literature is less particularly American than either the narratives of the provincial visiting Europe or the traveler confronting the mysteries of the western wilderness. However, the accounts published by sea captains, naval commanders, and common sailors of their adventures and sufferings on voyages all over the world comprise a significant proportion of U.S. travel writing. John Ledyard sailed with the British Explorer Captain James Cook on his third, ill-fated voyage and published an account of his experiences in A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean and in Quest of a North-West Passage (1783). Other important American accounts of sea travel include works by David Porter and Amasa Delano.

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