Tourism and Travel Writing

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In early June 1867 an eager group of well-to-do Americans boarded the steamship Quaker City and left from New York City Harbor, beginning a five-month tour around the Mediterranean Sea. The much publicized tour included Mark Twain (1835–1910), a rising star at the time who had neither the means nor respectability to rival his shipmates. His record of this auspicious tour—America's first pleasure cruise—via his highly successful travel book The Innocents Abroad (1869), signaled a transformation in the history of American tourism and travel writing.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, increasing numbers of Americans spread out over the globe, aspiring actors on a world stage. Americans were on the move in unprecedented numbers. Highly publicized and touted as a cultural event of the highest order, the Quaker City Pleasure Excursion, thanks to Twain's able pen, made the world more familiar and more intellectually accessible to readers and tourists alike. Although most of the participants represented a cultural elite similar to travelers of an earlier age, the trip demonstrated the possibilities for an increasing number of Americans who could travel in a similar fashion. As such, it divides the romantic era of traveling for pre–Civil War Americans and the onslaught of mass tourism, of which the Quaker City Excursion was but a harbinger.

This new movement of Americans also implied literary possibilities for numerous writers. No genre of American literature was more crucial to defining the national temperament than travel writing. Not only did it allow innumerable tourists the feasible option of sharing their experiences with a large audience, but it also provided a lucrative outlet for writers who would subsequently become better known for their fiction. In many instances, travel writing made literary careers possible. Mark Twain is a case in point; his travel books formed a consistent source of income that outstripped the earnings of his fiction. Other formidable literary figures benefited in various ways from the popularity of travel writing, including Henry James, William Dean Howells, Richard Harding Davis, Nellie Bly, Henry Adams, and Edith Wharton.

Tourism and travel writing share an inevitable symbiotic relationship. The tourism industry needs the valuable publicity afforded by vast numbers of travel narratives; likewise, the writers need the touristic apparatus that makes large-scale travel possible and attractive. Any examination of travel writing of this time period, then, must first consider how the technological and cultural shifts affected how Americans moved around the world.


By the post–Civil War era, the travel contagion was a full-fledged social upheaval. The editors of Putnam's Magazine, in a May 1868 essay titled "Going Abroad," observed:

If the social history of the world is ever written, the era in which we live will be called the nomadic period. With the advent of ocean steam navigation and the railway system, began a travelling mania which has gradually increased until half of the earth's inhabitants, or at least of its civilized portion, are on the move. (Pp. 530–531)

Indeed, Americans were "on the move" in unprecedented numbers, and as an inevitable result, supply and demand economics gradually took hold. Primary and ancillary business ventures grew to match public interest. For the first time in history, tourism was beginning to become practical for a significantly broader segment of the population, and traveling became associated more often with economic forces rather than the aesthetic ones that defined previous generations. Eric Leed, in The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism (1981), remarks that by the end of the century travel increasingly became not so much a means of differentiating one's character from others but more a means of reaching the norm.

If the basic practicalities of travel created a boom in American tourism and travel writing, the mood of the nation consummated the change. Surviving the cataclysmic challenge of the Civil War, the economic prospects and mood of Americans were primed for a surge in newfound confidence. Although nascent touristic apparatus was developing in Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and South America, throughout the century and even until the First World War, such travel destinations encouraged only the most adventurous or wealthy tourists. The most prominent impulse for Americans was to tour Europe, which not only boasted a formidable tourist establishment but also claimed the largest share of American tourists' curiosity and affiliation. It was a homing instinct of sorts for Euro-Americans, who made up the overwhelming majority of tourists. As the country itself expanded westward, the desire of tourists to follow along made tourism in the American West nearly equal to Europe in its drawing power. In this context, tourists moving westward formed a powerful, if informal, weapon in the conquest of the West for the United States. In Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780–1910 (2000), Larzer Ziff notes, "The literature of western travel celebrated America's unique features and in so doing encouraged provincial self-satisfaction in the face of a wider world" (p. 284). To travel through the imposing landscape of the West and witness ample evidence of the deepening imprint of American culture implied that the future was bright indeed.

No matter the mood of the country or its curiosity for foreign lands or, for that matter, the skill of travel writers, mass tourism always depends on the technological wherewithal to make movement practical. With its successful applications on land via the locomotive and on water via the steamboat, the steam engine transformed travel, cutting voyage times across the Atlantic in particular—from a matter of weeks in the 1830s to only days in the 1870s. Indeed, by 1907 the Lusitania made the journey in just under five days. As a result of the engineering advances, travel also became safer and more affordable as steamship cruise lines like Cunard and Collins competed for cross-Atlantic tourists. The significantly lower costs of time and money opened world travel to new consumers.

Likewise, Americans were able to travel extensively within North America because of an ambitious engineering achievement. The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, linked the two coasts and opened up the vast American interior to tourists, replacing the much slower and arduous overland journey by stagecoach. Other lines and spurs followed at an incredible rate, opening up most of the West in relatively short order. By 1888 over two thousand tourists during a season were visiting Alaska, the most remote territory on the continent, according to Earl Pomeroy in his In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America (1990). Pomeroy also notes that Pullman cars quickly gained prominence and established a standard of high luxury (as well as cost) equal to the finest steamship or European railroad service. As more lines came into existence, more majestic hotels sought to house tourists in opulence, creating tourist hubs in Monterey, San Diego, Pasadena, San Francisco, and the Grand Canyon, among other locations. To capitalize on the growing romanticization of the West by easterners and the expanding of touristic infrastructure, more varieties of accommodations allowed for increasing numbers of excursionists, all clamoring to see the Wild West, a tour made possible, ironically, by its taming.

At the cusp of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a significant number of Americans for the first time had the world open to their peregrinations. They looked longingly eastward to the romantic past of the Old World, and they looked eagerly westward to brilliant possibilities of a New World future. Many of these Americans were travel writers, and the forms and conventions of the genre as they applied it to the new age would record for posterity the vagaries of tourism and national identity in the Gilded Age.


As the ability of Americans to travel the world advanced and the social motivation for them increased, so did the interest of readers to encounter such travel vicariously in travel narratives. If economic forces responded to this movement by recognizing the habits and inclinations of tourists, travel writers, likewise, shaped expectations and in no small measure defined behavior. Travel writing both fueled this cultural transformation and followed it. Travelers to and from the United States had found eager audiences for their narratives throughout the century; however, by the late century readers clamored for travel books not only to revel in foreign tourism as armchair travelers but often to prepare for or reminisce about their own. The market seemed insatiable. Nineteenth-century Americans searching for their cultural identity increasingly turned to travel writing, which served a vital aesthetic and practical purpose by helping readers to understand themselves as they encountered a variety of cultural behaviors and assumptions foreign to their own. Writers and readers of travel sought other parts of the world to learn about themselves, and travel narratives thus voiced the anxieties and assurances, the successes and failures of this massive social quest. To fill this need, travel writers answered with an often formulaic but nonetheless vibrant literary form.

Travel literature is a varied and overlapping genre that combines the characteristics of journalism, autobiography, fiction, history, anthropology, and political analysis into a narrative smorgasbord. As a composite literary form, it resists neat categorization and isolation. It does, however, exhibit certain conventions that set it apart from other more focused forms of nonfiction. Throughout the nineteenth century, the travel book was often victimized by its own simple though flexible formula, especially as worked by inferior writers, of which there were many. Its structure yielded to repetitiveness, which eventually created obvious patterns as more and more writers trod the same ground. Their weight, like the weight of their tourist peers, wore down the literary turf underfoot and in doing so created ruts that were all too easy to follow. As the century progressed and the tourists' numbers expanded, redundancy was inevitable. Nonetheless, travel writers on the whole left a vital and often provocative record of how Americans saw the world and themselves.

In the late nineteenth century, the travel narrative as a literary form had two basic ostensible requirements: to instruct and to entertain. The two explicit standards simply reflected the assumptions for any nonfiction book, in that readers expected to learn something of value and enjoy the process. Therefore, writers needed to balance factual material with more fanciful fare. As a result, travel books in the nineteenth century were heavily laden with factual information (e.g., heights, weights, distances, populations, expenses, and temperatures), anything from average yearly rainfall in Rome to the number of cats in Constantinople. Travel books were realistic by definition; they purported to reveal exactly what the writer witnessed objectively. However, a travel book that offered straight, dispassionate reportage risked irking readers, so the factual text needed to be counterbalanced by more romantic content, often engendered by enthusiasm for natural beauty or fine art. Even the most realistic and staid writer often provided plenty of romantic rapture throughout the century even after literary tastes had become more restrained. Readers depended on their travel narratives to provide the most fulfilling experience possible; it was not a time for understatement. Mere physical description of any wonder, from Niagara Falls to the Sphinx or the Taj Mahal, would hardly suffice to evoke the emotional reaction preferred by tourists, no matter how sophisticated their tastes.

Despite its pretensions toward objectivity, the travel book was a highly subjective narrative form, wholly dependent on the particular pressures of individual circumstances and cultural baggage. This feature added to instruction and entertainment conventions and in the end gives travel writing its vibrancy. In this context, a third major requirement for the travel book becomes evident, if not implicit: to validate. Tourists and travel readers are curious about foreign cultures, but they are rarely disenchanted with their own. Most readers welcomed a two-pronged experience, an experience that introduced them to foreign cultural facts and idiosyncrasies on the one hand and an experience that affirmed their own on the other. Rare was the narrative that did not conclude—at any opportunity—that home was better after all, providing welcome validation for national pride. Twain captured this sentiment ironically in the closing pages of The Innocents Abroad: "We always took care to make it understood that we were Americans—Americans!" (p. 645). Travel writers reorganized the world and defined it on thoroughly American terms. Such complacency may reflect provincialism, but it is also a sign of cultural and political ascendancy.


Although the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century produced a vast array of travel writers with an equally varied range of talent, the major contributors to the literary form remained the canonical Mark Twain, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, three stalwart figures of literary realism who were also masters of travel writing.

Mark Twain was the most successful American travel writer of the late nineteenth century; his five travel books—The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Following the Equator (1897)—evince a quintessential Americanism. His first and best-selling narrative debunked an Old World that had been thoroughly elegized by preceding generations of American travel writers. He would publish a return to Europe in A Tramp Abroad just over a decade later, less brash but thoroughly self-absorbed as a pampered man of leisure, a symbol of gluttony for the Gilded Age in full swing. His domestic tours delved into the heart of American mythology, first with the West of Roughing It, then to the symbolic center of the country with Life on the Mississippi. As with the Old World, Twain saw little to support a quixotic hope for the New. The wide-open landscape and seemingly endless opportunity were both most often overwhelmed, in the end, by human folly. Twain's last narrative, Following the Equator, provided a bookend for the first thirty years of American mass tourism and marked a significant shift in tone and energy. The days of innocence were gone forever, and the narrative voice resonates with the growing awareness of complicity with American imperialism. He closed his travel-writing career and the first phase of the Tourist Age with a simple observation: "Human pride is not worth while; there is always something lying in wait to take the wind out of it" (p. 712).

Henry James (1843–1916) began his travel writing career along with Twain, taking his first adult tour to Europe the same year as the publication of The Innocents Abroad. It was during that tour that James, in a letter to his mother (13 October 1869), defined American tourists as "vulgar, vulgar, vulgar," thus placing his sensibilities in direct contrast to Twain's. James thereby offers a distinctive American voice, clearly highbrow to Twain's more popular appeal. If Twain announced a cultural independence from the Old World, James would argue for an observant emulation of it in order to move toward a perfect completion of New World culture. According to Larzer Ziff, James referred to his first adult journey as a "passionate pilgrimage" (p. 224) and adopted a cosmopolitan tone throughout his career, in opposition to Twain's parochial persona. James published, beginning in 1870, numerous travel sketches, primarily in the Nation, and would go on to publish six travel books: Transatlantic Sketches (1875), Portraits of Places (1883), A Little Tour in France (1884), English Hours (1905), The American Scene (1907), and Italian Hours (1909). Only A Little Tour in France and The American Scene are holistic narratives; the others are collections of his published sketches. Still these travel books make up an essential part of American travel writing, as they establish a firm and unapologetic American intellect that seeks to bridge the Atlantic rather than rejoice in the separation.

Still, Henry James, much like Twain, had lost any optimism in the completion of American culture by the end of the century. In The American Scene, the travel work that Larzer Ziff calls "one of the most distinguished analyses of American culture ever written," James comes home (p. 224). It had been a disappointing journey. Twain circled the globe and came face to face with the ill effects of imperialism and recognized America's failure to live up to its promise; James returned to a home he had abandoned twenty years earlier and found the same loss—a nation given over to crass materialism and plebeian tastes, lost without the steadfast mooring of high culture.

Edith Wharton (1862–1937), a professional travel writer of the first order, achieved an artistry equal to her predecessors. Unlike Twain and James, who traveled with decidedly nineteenth-century conceits, however, she captured a newfound energy of the twentieth century. Wharton embraced yet another technological transformation while also celebrating her own right as a female to enter a traditionally male discourse. Mary Schriber, in Writing Home: American Women Abroad, 1830–1920 (1997), points out that Wharton's travels were "an intellectual adventure to discover the wonders of art and architecture—a rather bold and confident act for a woman writing in a world in which men were the scholars and arbiters of arts and letters" (p. 196). As such she was able to place women's travel writing, heretofore largely relegated to the margins, at the center of highbrow culture in the tradition of James. Wharton published six travel books: Italian Villas and Their Gardens (1904), Italian Backgrounds (1905), A Motor-Flight through France (1908), Fighting France: From Dunkerque to Belfort (1915), French Ways and Their Meaning (1919), and In Morocco (1920). A seventh narrative, The Cruise of the Vandilis, was published in 1992. A Motor-Flight through France is an especially important text in that it signals a significant shift in mode of transportation, the automobile, which would help to define tourism and travel writing in the twentieth century. Wharton argues that the automobile allows for more romantic travel by granting more freedom to the traveler too often tyrannized by rigorous train schedules.

Wharton's two overtly political books on France, Fighting France and French Ways and Their Meaning, in addition to arguing for American involvement in World War I, also imply the cataclysm that would force another shift in the history of American tourism and travel writing. As the world was engulfed in war, the tourism industry—along with the travel writing that fed it—would virtually shut down, ending a golden age of tourism and travel writing in America. The Gilded Age, as it encouraged American political and cultural expansion, depended on a burgeoning tourist industry and travel writing that nourished the seemingly insatiable desire to place the United States at the center of the world.

See alsoAmericans Abroad; The American Scene; Transportation


Primary Works

"Going Abroad." Putnam's Magazine 1 (1868): 530–538.

James, Henry. The American Scene. 1907. Edited by Leon Edel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.

Twain, Mark. Following the Equator and Anti-Imperialist Essays. 1897. Edited with a foreword by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad. 1869. Edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Wharton, Edith. A Motor-Flight through France. 1908. Edited by Mary Suzanne Schriber. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1991.

Secondary Works

Buzard, James. The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800–1918. New York: Clarendon/Oxford University Press, 1993.

Caesar, Terry. Forgiving the Boundaries: Home as Abroad in American Travel Writing. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Cohen, Erik. "A Phenomenology of Tourist Experiences." Sociology 13 (1979): 179–201.

Fox, Stephen. Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

Leed, Eric. The Mind of the Traveler: From "Gilgamesh" to Global Tourism. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Pomeroy, Earl. In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Schriber, Mary Suzanne. Writing Home: American Women Abroad, 1830–1920. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997.

Shaffer, Marguerite S. See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880–1940. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.

Stowe, William W. Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Ziff, Larzer. Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780–1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jeffrey Melton