The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing

Article excerpt

* The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing. Alfred Bendixen and Judith Hamera, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 314 pp. $89 hbk.

The curious itinerant knows how little exists by way of travel literature, particularly books that may be used as textbooks in a travel-writing class. Although by no means comprehensive, a feat that would be difficult to achieve, The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing is a major milestone. The book takes readers on an Odyssey around the world by recording and analyzing journeys undertaken mainly by Americans over the centuries, using various modes of transportation and recorded in differing political, social, and cultural contexts.

The book is organized into three sections: (1) Confronting the American Landscape; (2) Americans Abroad; and (3) Social Scenes and American Sites. The thirteen chapters deal primarily with nonfiction narratives while frequently referencing fiction about travel. The editors concede that travel writing is frequently at the intersection of fact and fiction, and that the writer may take many different disciplinary approaches to travel writing - historical, journalistic, and scientific. The book's authors have gathered information from works of travel writers that range from the scholarly and professional, to the literary and autobiographical.

The various writers in this volume classify travel writing into different genres. Writing about the origins of American travel writing, Philip Gould observes that mapping America for potential settlers, political, religious, or scientific reasons were the driving forces for travel writing in the eighteenth-century British America, although the literary form existed as well. Frontier travel narrative also prevalent at this time tried to observe Native American culture and make this comprehensible to others. A prime example of promotional travel writing, Gould observes, is Benjamin Franklin's famous autobiography, composed when Franklin was in England, and in which Franklin paints a picture of Philadelphia as a cosmopolitan city full of opportunities.

The Companion also provides a wealth of travel writings in nineteenth-century America authored both by British and American writers who were attracted by technological progress, opportunities to explore, the beauty of the landscape, and modes of transportation. The book focuses on selected travel writings about the Eastern United States from New York to Niagara; the Mississippi River; and the Southwest. Christopher Mulvey notes that New York was admired as an urban city and a technological wonder by British writers, who compared it to the coal smoke-covered cities of England.

There also are frequent references to the ways that changing modes of transportation changed travel literature. For example, horse-drawn canal boats graced the 363-mile-long Erie Canal, completed in 1825, and transformed vUlages along the way into cities. As the Erie RaUroad construction began in 1936, Mulvey observes that interest in the Erie Canal began to fade. Martin Padget's chapter on the Southwest notes that adventures in the rather Wild West were milder by the 1880s after the advent of the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe transcontinental railroads. Niagara evoked poetry and also gave rise to the guidebook phenomenon, with volumes focusing on Niagara alone, thus attracting the tourist and not just the explorer. …