Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840: 'From an Antique Land'

Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840: 'From an Antique Land'

Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840: 'From an Antique Land'

Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing, 1770-1840: 'From an Antique Land'


The decades between 1770 and 1840 are rich in exotic accounts of the ruin-strewn landscapes of Ethiopia, Egypt, India, and Mexico. Yet it is a field which has been neglected by scholars and which - unjustifiably - remains outside the literary canon. In this pioneering book, Nigel Leask studiesthe Romantic obsession with these 'antique lands', drawing generously on a wide range of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel books, as well as on recent scholarship in literature, history, geography, and anthropology. Viewing the texts primarily as literary works rather than 'transparent'adventure stories or documentary sources, he sets out to challenge the tendency in modern academic work to overemphasize the authoritative character of colonial discourse. Instead, he addresses the relationship between narrative, aesthetics, and colonialism through the unstable discourse ofantiquarianism, exploring the effects of problems of creditworthiness, and the nebulous epistemologicial claims of 'curiosity' (a leitmotif of the accounts studied here), on the contemporary status of travel writing. Attentive to the often divergent idioms of elite and popular exoticism, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Travel Writing plots the transformation of the travelogue through the period, as the baroque particularism of curiosity was challenged by picturesque aesthetics, systematic 'geographicalnarrative', and the emergence of a 'transcendental self' axiomatic to Romantic culture. In so doing it offers an important reformulation of the relations between literature, aesthetics, and empire in the late Enlightenment and Romantic periods.


I met a Traveller from an antique land.
(P. B. Shelley, 'Ozymandias', 1818)

[In the late Middle Ages] the interest attached to the narratives of travels
was … wholly dramatic, and the … admixture of the marvellous, gave
them almost an epic colouring … They had that character of unity
which every work of art requires; everything was associated with one
action, and made subservient to the narration of the journey itself … In
the midst of the obscurity in which the East and the interior of Asia were
shrouded, distance seemed only to magnify the grand proportions of
individual forms. This unity of composition is almost wholly wanting in
most of our recent voyages, especially where their object is the acquire
ment of scientific knowledge. The narrative in the latter case is secondary
to observations, and is almost wholly lost sight of … this partial disad
vantage is fully compensated for by the increased value of the facts
observed, the greater expansion of natural views, and the laudable
endeavour to employ the peculiar characteristics of different languages,
in rendering natural descriptions clear and distinct.

(Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos 1849)

This book is a study of European travel writing about Ethiopia, Egypt, India, and Mexico in the years between 1770 and 1840: countries situated within the 'torrid zones' of Africa, Asia, and America, which, despite their cartographic and cultural distance from one other, shared the fate of being considered 'antique lands' by Europeans. Unlike most recent studies of extra-European travel writing in these decades, I am principally concerned with aesthetic and archaeological (in contemporary terminology, antiquarian) discourses of travel rather than with science or natural history. Of course, one of the attractions of travel writing in the period is the uninhibited energy with which it ranges across modern disciplinary boundaries, as the shaping itinerary narrative is

Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, 5 vols., trans,
by E. C. Otte (London, Henry Bohn, 1849), ii. pp. 434-6. Hereafter C.

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