Travel Writing

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Travel writing is a difficult genre to classify as it shares in so many other genres. Histories, personal narratives, accounts of exploration, and tales of epic quests: travel writing derives from and adds to each of these forms. Travel writing has always been as much about the exploration of the writer's self as it has been about the places or peoples visited. Travel writers and critics of the genre have often argued that the destination is of relatively little consequence; it is the process of travel, the work or travail involved, that is the true subject of the travel writer.

If travel writing is as much about the traveler as it is about the destination, then American travel writing reveals as much about the American self as it does about other peoples. American travel writing during the period 1820–1870 reflected the nation's expansion of its territorial boundaries, its participation in the process of Manifest Destiny, and its developing sense of itself as a distinct nation with ties to its European past. That sense of nationhood and of a national self was to be severely tested during the American Civil War. Among the many political, historical, and social events that determined the scope and focus of American travel narratives during the period were the Lewis and Clark expedition (1803–1806), the voyages of the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842), the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the California gold rush (1849), and the American Civil War (1861–1865).


During the first half of the nineteenth century, the area of the United States markedly expanded. The lands added by the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Florida Purchase (1819), and the territory ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War more than doubled the area governed by the United States at the start of the century. When France sold the territory of Louisiana to the United States, scarcely a third of America's population lived more than a two-day horseback ride from the eastern seaboard. The lands within the Louisiana Purchase were virtually terra incognita to most Americans. Except for fur trappers and traders, few white men had ever seen most of the new lands. In the East, the area was so unknown that Thomas Jefferson seriously believed that herds of mammoth might exist on the plains. Having read Alexander Mackenzie's (1803–1848) Voyages from Montreal, on the River St. Lawrence, through the Continent of North America to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans (1801), Jefferson authorized Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) and their Corps of Discovery not only to explore this vast territory but also to report on what they found.

Published in two volumes in 1814, the History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, to the Sources of the Missouri, thence across the Rocky Mountains and down the River Columbia to the Pacific Ocean matched Mackenzie's work in the exhaustiveness of its title. Although it was not the first major American work on the trans-Mississippi West—that distinction belongs to Zebulon Pike's (1779–1813) Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi, and through the Western Parts of Louisiana (1810)—Lewis and Clark's history constitutes one of the most significant contributions to American travel writing in the nineteenth century. The Lewis and Clark expedition spurred government interest in other expeditions and fueled the imaginations of later explorers, historians, and literary figures.

Although his travel writings recount his travels in Europe, James Fenimore Cooper's (1789–1851) fictional work was indirectly influenced by the writings of Lewis and Clark. In the Leatherstocking Tales—most particularly in The Prairie (1827)—Cooper celebrates a vanishing America and its vanquished and vanishing Indian peoples. Among writers more directly influenced by the journals of Lewis and Clark was Washington Irving (1783–1859). Although Irving is best known for accounts of his travels in Europe, many of which he put into The Sketch Book (1819–1820), he also traveled in and wrote about trans-Mississippi America. In 1832, after spending almost two decades in Europe, Irving returned to America. In the fall of 1832 he set out on a trip to western New York State and northeastern Ohio. In Ashtabula, Ohio, Irving met Henry Ellsworth, newly appointed Indian Commissioner for the tribes in what are now Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Irving and the two friends with whom he was traveling—Charles Latrobe and Count Albert-Alexandre de Pourtalés—decided to join Ellsworth on his journey to the Indian territories. Irving wrote about what he saw and experienced on this journey in A Tour on the Prairies (1835). At the start of his narrative, Irving, in an American form of nostalgia for a lost or vanishing innocence, states that among his reasons for making the journey was to see the prairies and the animals and peoples that inhabited them before they disappeared.

Irving, who had earlier shown his interest in exploration narratives in A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), would continue to imaginatively explore the lands opened up by the Lewis and Clark expedition in Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836) and The Rocky Mountains; or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West (1837).


The expedition of the Corps of Discovery and the account of its journey spurred interest in further discoveries on land and sea. The four-year voyage of the U.S. Exploring Expedition under the command of Charles Wilkes (1798–1877)—the last significant exploring voyage in wooden ships—not only established that Antarctica was a continent but also added immeasurably to America's knowledge of the Pacific, its islands, and inhabitants, and—most importantly for America's commercial interests at the time—the migration routes of whales. Wilkes wrote about this fantastic and arduous voyage in the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition: During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Published in five volumes in 1845, Wilkes's narrative detailed the voyages of his six-ship squadron from Norfolk, Virginia, down the east coast of South America, around Cape Horn, up the west coast of South America, west and south to Tahiti and Samoa, farther south to New South Wales (Australia) and Antarctica, back north again to Fiji, north and east to Hawaii, then farther east to the northwest coast of America and the mouth of the Columbia River. From the Columbia, the remaining ships in the squadron sailed to San Francisco, then to Honolulu and Singapore before turning east for the return voyage around Cape Horn and back north to New York. Wilkes was a stern disciplinarian and might have served as the model for Captain Ahab.

Among the reasons for Wilkes's exploration of the Antarctic coastline was a bizarre theory proposed in 1818 by a former infantry captain, John Cleves Symmes (1742–1814), who argued that the earth was hollow and open at the poles. In 1837 Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), a keen observer of popular scientific trends, published The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, in which Pym, after a series of shipwrecks and other adventures, sails into a warm tropical world at the South Pole. A fascinating amalgam of racialist theories (Poe's work reveals his fear of a black slave revolt in his adopted South), pseudoscience, and narrative implausibility (how does Pym tell his tale if he is swept over a cataract of almost boiling water at the Pole?), The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym shows the degree to which imaginative fiction was shaped by travel narratives.

Other American writers who turned their own adventures at sea in the 1830s and 1840s into literature include Richard Henry Dana (1815–1882) and Herman Melville (1819–1891). Dana's Two Years before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (1840) did much to dispel the Romantic image of life at sea. Melville, whose whaling voyages in the 1840s took him into the Pacific that Wilkes was exploring, converted his experiences into Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). These works were well received by an American reading public who read them as rather straightforward travel narratives. Although Melville was honing his literary craft in these early works and disliked being categorized as a travel writer, his later work would never approach the commercial success of these two novels during his lifetime. In addition to using his own experiences at sea as a source for his fiction, Melville had an eye for the narrative possibilities in earlier travel narratives. Most memorably, he turned an incident from Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817) into one of his finest short stories, "Benito Cereno" (1856).

By the mid-nineteenth century American commercial interests in the Pacific and in Asia had propelled American sailors farther west. In 1852 Commodore Matthew Perry (1794–1858) sailed on a diplomatic mission to open up Japan to western commerce. He recounted his exploits in his Narrative of the Expedition of an American Naval Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854 (1856).

At the same time that Americans were plying the seas in pursuit of whales and trade, other Americans were pushing across the American prairies in the hopes of establishing overland trade routes. Of the travel narratives devoted to this aspect of American enterprise, Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies; or, The Journal of a Santa Fé Trader (1844) remains a classic account. Growing American interest in the Southwest and Central America led John Lloyd Stephens (1805–1852), who had already written Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petræa, and the Holy Land (1838) and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (1838), to explore Central America. Assisted in part by President Martin Van Buren's appointing him as a minister to the Central American Federation, Stephens traveled to Belize where he found enough time away from his diplomatic duties to purchase the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Copán. Stephens wrote about his discoveries in adventures in Belize in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and about his later trip to Yucatán in Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843).

Not all American travel writing during the 1830s and 1840s was based on such exotic locales as Copán. Closer to home, Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), one of the leading figures in American transcendentalism, wrote about her excursion through the Great Lakes to the prairies of Illinois and Wisconsin in Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844). As Annette Kolodny notes in The Land before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860, among the writers Fuller consulted "to prepare herself for her summer in Illinois and Wisconsin was Caroline Kirkland" (p. 131). Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839) is important because it is one of the first accounts of pioneer life to point out that an experience that often proved liberating for men was confining for women.

No account of travels within America would be complete without mentioning the writings of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). Although only one of his "travel" narratives—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)—was published before his death in 1862, Thoreau possessed a remarkable eye for the pleasures and travails of travel. Few accounts of woodland travel can equal his description of the boggy, mosquito- and black fly–ridden, territory that is the subject of The Maine Woods (1864). Similarly, Thoreau's Cape Cod (1865) is a memorable journal of his observations of this special place.


The writings and discoveries of Lewis and Clark and others were an important impetus in the development of travel writing about the American West but it was the discovery of gold in California in 1849 that fired the imagination of the American populace. Among those who would travel to and write about California was John Woodhouse Audubon (1812–1862), the son of the famous naturalist and illustrator, John James Audubon (1785–1851). In 1849, the younger Audubon joined an expedition to the goldfields of California with the expressed purpose of making a fortune that could be used to underwrite the costs of his father's projects. Although he did not achieve the wealth he had hoped for—partly due to the theft of some of his funds—Audubon did write a journal about his travels. The journal was published as The Illustrated Notes of an Expedition through Mexico and California (1852), and republished with extensive editing by his daughter, Maria Audubon, as Audubon's Western Journal: 1849–1850 (1906).

Although Francis Parkman (1823–1893) went on his western journey to restore his health rather than to make his fortune in the California goldfields, his The California and Oregon Trail (1849) remained one of the most important books about the American West for the remainder of the nineteenth century. Another famous figure in California history who also explored the intermountain west was "The Pathfinder," John Charles Frémont (1813–1890). Although he was an astute observer of the plant and animal life and an excellent amateur scientist, Frémont was only modestly capable as a writer. It was his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont (1824–1902), the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton (a champion of westward expansion), who provided Frémont's works with their literary verve.


The most popular forms of American travel writing during the five decades from 1820 to 1870 were those that reported on Americans' travels through Europe. Oftentimes these accounts were little more than "letters" home to the local newspapers in which the correspondent, a native son or daughter, recounted what she or he had seen in Europe. In the hands of a skilled writer like Washington Irving, these observations of Europe by an American abroad could and did achieve literary art. America's first professional man of letters, Irving virtually invented the genre of the American writing from abroad. In The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving intermingles descriptions of English life and culture with tales set in his native country such as "Rip Van Winkle," and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The financial success of The Sketch Book led Irving to write Bracebridge Hall (1822) and Tales of a Traveller (1824). Although Irving, once again adopting the guise of Geoffrey Crayon, promises in his introduction to Bracebridge Hall to provide his readers with an intimate view of London, the work is mostly an uncritical celebration of life on English rural estates. Tales of a Traveller contains little actual travel writing; most of the work consists of generalized portraits of European types in stories with titles such as "The Italian Banditti."

James Fenimore Cooper, another important figure in the development of nineteenth-century American literature, also wrote about his travels in Europe. From 1826 until 1833, Cooper and his family traveled through France, England, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. When he returned to America he used the material from his European journals to produce Sketches of Switzerland (1836), Recollections of Europe (1837), England (1837), and Excursions in Italy (1838).

England, which many Anglophile Americans viewed as their "old home," tops the list of those countries that American travelers in the 1820s through the 1840s most often visited and subsequently wrote about. As Allison Lockwood has shown in Passionate Pilgrims: The American Traveler in Great Britain, 1800–1914, England achieved the status of an almost-holy destination. In addition to Irving and Cooper, American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lydia Sigourney, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Benjamin Silliman also visited and wrote about England.

In this passage, Washington Irving compares the grandeur of American scenery with the palpable sense of history that he finds in European places and scenes.

My native country was full of youthful promise: Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age. Her very ruins told the history of the times gone by, and every mouldering stone was a chronicle. I longed to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement—to tread, as it were, in the footsteps of antiquity—to loiter about the ruined castle—to meditate on the falling tower—to escape, in short, from the commonplace realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past.

Irving, "The Author's Account of Himself," in The Sketch Book, p. 9.

If England represented a nostalgically imagined homeland, Italy represented a romantically conceived site of past glories and artistic possibilities. In TheFortunate Pilgrims: Americans in Italy, 1800–1860, Paul Baker examines the allure that Italy held for American artists and writers. William Cullen Bryant, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Joel Headley, William Dean Howells, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain), and Rembrandt Peale were among the prominent figures drawn to Italy in the 1830s through the 1860s.

Of the writers mentioned above, none is more closely associated with Italian history during the 1840s than Margaret Fuller (1810–1850). In 1846 Fuller traveled to a Europe on the brink of revolution. To pay some of the costs of her trip, she contracted with the New-York Daily Tribune to write "dispatches" from Europe, to which the Tribune gave front-page coverage. Fuller's European tour included the expected stops in England—visits to the Lake District, commentaries on picturesque castles, and conversations with poets. While in London, she met Giuseppe Mazzini, a leading Italian nationalist. When she traveled to Italy in 1847 she sensed it was a place in which she belonged and to which she could commit her energies. Her attachment to Italy was reinforced by her affair with Giovanni Ossoli, who was an ardent supporter of Mazzini. She and Ossoli were eyewitnesses to the revolutionary events in Italy in 1848 and 1849. Fuller, Ossoli, and their young son drowned in July 1850, when the ship on which they were traveling back to America went aground off of Fire Island, New York.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), who had modeled Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance (1852) on Fuller, was far from kind in his estimation of Fuller and her Italian family. He thought her attraction to Ossoli was purely sensual and accounted it an act of God that she, her lover, and her son had traveled on the ill-fated ship. Hawthorne and his family lived in Italy during 1858 and 1859. Despite his mistrust of Fuller's Italian politics, Hawthorne did find things to admire in Italy and in Rome in particular. His wife's edition of his Italian notebooks did not appear until after his death, but his last novel The Marble Faun; or, the Romance of Monte Beni (1860) owes a great deal to his Roman sojourn. The Roman scenes in the book were so well realized that versions of the work were sold in the late nineteenth century with the addition of picture postcards of Rome.

Although European travel during the period prior to the American Civil War was by and large the province of the well-to-do, literary figures with contacts in England or on the continent, and authors (Irving and Hawthorne among them) who had secured ambassadorial appointments, there were travelers and writers who represented otherwise disenfranchised or minority voices. Chief among these were William Wells Brown (c. 1814–1884) and George Copway (1818–c. 1863).

Brown, who began life as a slave near Lexington, Kentucky, gained his freedom by escaping from a steamboat in Cincinnati in 1834 and making his way north through Ohio to Cleveland. He later moved to Michigan and then to Buffalo, New York. In 1849 Brown, by now once again being pursued by a former master, sailed to France as the representative of the American Peace Society to the Paris Peace Congress of 1849. Brown stayed in Europe for five years, eventually purchasing his freedom with the help of English friends. In 1852 he wrote about the first three years of his stay in Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met.

Copway, whose parents were Ojibwa, was given the name Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh at birth. A convert to Methodism, Copway was trained as a Methodist minister and served in that capacity in the upper Midwest during the 1840s. In August 1850 he was selected as one of forty American delegates (he was the only Native American among them) to the Fourth General Peace Conference at Frankfurt am Main. He turned his observations of this European trip into Running Sketches of Men and Places, in England, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland (1851). This work has the distinction of being the first book of travel writing by a Native American.

No overview of American travel writing from 1820 to 1870 would be complete without mentioning the travels and writings of Bayard Taylor (1825–1878). From the mid-1840s through mid-1870s, Taylor was the epitome of the indefatigable American traveler. Taylor's first introduction to Europe was as a poor young man who traveled on foot across much of Europe for two years (1844–1846). His account of that journey, Views A-foot; or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff (1846) might appeal to young Americans walking and hitchhiking through Europe in the present day. In addition to writing about Europe, Taylor would later document his travels to California shortly after the gold rush (1850); to Central Africa (1854); to Palestine, Asia Minor, Sicily, and Spain (1854); to India, China, and Japan (1855); to Sweden, Denmark, and Lapland (1858); and to Greece and Russia (1859). From 1858 through much of the 1860s Taylor wrote fiction in addition to travel literature and was a fixture on the lecture circuit, presenting over five hundred lectures during these years.

As may have been the case with the peripatetic Taylor, the American Civil War interrupted American travel and tourism abroad during the early 1860s. The pace of American travel abroad resumed after the war and guidebook-toting Americans in Europe became so common that they would be gently satirized in Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad (1869) and become the subject of Henry James's The American (1877). In naming the central character of this work Christopher Newman, James was calling attention to the voyages of European discovery that Americans were making. Newman is just that—a new man in the Old World. Reversing the path taken by another famous Christopher (Columbus), Newman, having made his fortune in America, travels to Europe in search of what has eluded him at home.

See alsoAmericans Abroad; Exploration and Discovery; Foreigners; Tourism; Typee;Two Years before the Mast


Primary Works

Brown, William Wells. Three Years in Europe; or, Places I HaveSeen and People I Have Met. London: C. Gilpin, 1852.

Cooper, James Fenimore. England. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1837.

Cooper, James Fenimore. Excursions in Italy. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1838.

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, 1827.

Cooper, James Fenimore. Recollections of Europe. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1837.

Cooper, James Fenimore. A Residence in France; with anExcursion up the Rhine, and a Second Visit to Switzerland. London: Richard Bentley, 1836.

Cooper, James Fenimore. Sketches of Switzerland. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1836.

Copway, George. Running Sketches of Men and Places, inEngland, France, Germany, Belgium, and Scotland. New York: J. C. Riker, 1851.

Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. Two Years before the Mast: APersonal Narrative of Life at Sea. New York: Harper, 1840.

Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies: or, The Journal of a Santa Fé Trader. 2 vols. New York: H. G. Langley, 1844.

Fuller, Margaret. Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. Boston: C. C. Little and J. Brown, 1844.

Fuller, Margaret. "These Sad But Glorious Days": Dispatches from Europe, 1846–1850. Edited by Larry J. Reynolds and Susan Belasco Smith. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Frémont, John Charles. Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843–44. 28th Congress, 2nd session, Serial 461. Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives, 1845.

Frémont, John Charles. A Report on an Exploration of theCountry Lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains on the Line of the Kansas and Great Platte Rivers. 27th Congress, 3rd session, Serial 416, Senate Document 243. Washington, D.C.: Printed by Order of the U.S. Senate, 1843.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Marble Faun; or, The Romance of Monte Beni. 2 vols. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Passages from the English Note-Books. 2 vols. Edited by Sarah Peabody Hawthorne. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1870.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Passages from the French and ItalianNote-Books. 2 vols. Edited by Sarah Peabody Hawthorne. Boston: J. R. Osgood and Co., 1872.

Irving, Washington. Astoria; or, Anecdotes of an Enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains. 3 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1836.

Irving, Washington. A History of the Life and Voyages ofChristopher Columbus. 4 vols. London: John Murray, 1828.

Irving, Washington. The Rocky Mountains; or, Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Far West. 3 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1837.

Irving, Washington. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. 1819–1820. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Irving, Washington. A Tour on the Prairies. London: John Murray, 1835.

Kirkland, Caroline. A New Home—Who'll Follow? or,Glimpses of Western Life. 1839. Edited by William S. Osborne. Schenectady, N.Y.: New College and University Press, 1965.

Melville, Herman. Omoo; A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas. London: Murray; New York: Harper, 1847.

Melville, Herman. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846.

Taylor, Bayard. Eldorado; or, Adventures in the Path of Empire. New York: Putnam, 1850.

Taylor, Bayard. A Journey to Central Africa; or, Life andLandscapes from Egypt to the Negro Kingdoms of the White Nile. New York: Putnam, 1854.

Taylor, Bayard. The Lands of the Saracen; or, Pictures ofPalestine, Asia Minor, Sicily, and Spain. New York: Putnam, 1854.

Taylor, Bayard. Northern Travel: Summer and WinterPictures of Sweden, Denmark, and Lapland. New York: Putnam, 1858.

Taylor, Bayard. Travels in Greece and Russia, with an Excursion to Crete. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1859.

Taylor, Bayard. Views A-foot; or , Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846.

Taylor, Bayard. A Visit to India, China, and Japan, in the Year 1853. New York: G. P. Putnam and Co., 1855.

Secondary Works

Baker, Paul R. The Fortunate Pilgrims: Americans in Italy,1800–1860. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Kolodny, Annette. The Land before Her: Fantasy andExperience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Lockwood, Allison. Passionate Pilgrims: The AmericanTraveler in Great Britain, 1800–1914. Rutherford, N.J.: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981.

Mulvey, Christopher. Anglo-American Landscapes: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Travel Literature. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Ross, Donald, and James Schramer, eds. American Travel Writers, 1850–1915. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Schramer, James and Donald Ross, eds. American Travel Writers, 1776–1864. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997.

James J. Schramer