Travel Culture: Essays on What Makes Us Go

By Carol Traynor Williams | Go to book overview

Identity in John Lloyd Stephens's
Incidents of Travel in Central America,
Chiapas, and Yucatan

WILLIAM E. LENZ

AS EARLY AS 1815, the North American Review declared that a sumptuous variety of narratives of travel and exploration were being devoured by its readers and that their appetite for more narratives was apparently insatiable. In a review of the Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacifick Ocean, by Captain David Porter . . . . , the writer argues that even though there had been "so many expeditions by different nations, so many scientifick voyages, and such copious accounts published of the islands and coasts of the Pacifick Ocean; yet the distance, the grandeur, the beauty of those countries, the magnificent serenity of the climate, the wonderful productions of animate and inanimate nature, and the still uncivilized state of mankind in that part of the globe, make us open every new description of them with avidity" (247-48). Nineteenth-century Americans had a fundamental desire to travel, a cultural need that expressed itself in actual exploration or migration or, in more settled lives, in imaginative travel through the act of reading. Though most Americans could not travel to the Arctic Circle, many could read John Franklin's Narrative of a Second Expedition to the shores of the Polar Sea. Those who did voyage out often kept journals which found a ready market when worked up into travel books. John Franklin and David Porter are but two of a host of American travelers who published their accounts; part of the process of travel was to report home, in letters, in a journal, or in more literary reflections. A very abbreviated list of well-known American travel writers would include Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sophia Peabody, Charles Fenno Hoffman, Margaret Fuller, Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and of course Mark Twain.

John Lloyd Stephens is a typical nineteenth-century American traveler, a New York lawyer who was sent abroad for his health in 1834. Uniquely, his journey took him from Rome, Naples, and Sicily, to Mycenae, Smyrna, Ephesus, Constantinople, Odessa, Moscow, St Petersburg, Warsaw, Vienna, Paris, and on to Alexandria, Cairo,

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