Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity

Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity

Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity

Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity

Synopsis

Traveling South is the first major study of how narratives of travel through the antebellum South helped construct an American national identity during the years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. John Cox makes his case on the basis of a broad range of texts that includes slave narratives, domestic literature, and soldiers' diaries, as well as more traditional forms of travel writing. In the process he extends the boundaries of travel literature both as a genre and as a subject of academic study.

The writers of these intranational accounts struggled with the significance of travel through a region that was both America and "other." In writings by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and William Bartram, for example, the narrators create personal identities and express their Americanness through travel that, Cox argues, becomes a defining aspect of the young nation. In the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup, the complex relationship between travel and slavery highlights contemporary debates over the meaning of space and movement. Both Fanny Kemble and Harriet Jacobs explore the intimate linkings of women's travel and the construction of an ideal domestic space, whereas Frederick Law Olmsted seeks, through his travel writing, to reform the southern economy and expand a New England yeoman ideology throughout the nation. The Civil War diaries of Union soldiers, written during the years that witnessed the largest movement of travelers through the South, echo earlier themes while concluding that the South should not be transformed in order to become sufficiently "American"; rather, it was and should remain a part of the American nation, regardless of perceived differences.

Excerpt

If God were suddenly to call the world to judgment, He would surprise
two-thirds of the population of the United States on the road like ants.

DOMINGO SARMIENTO

Travel made the United States. As both a country and a concept, America was founded on movement—of people, of ideas, of goods. Of course, international immigration has been central to American identity since the earliest European exploration, but travel within the continent likewise played a significant role in the creation and maintenance of the American nation.

Struggle, too, has been a defining characteristic of the United States since its founding. In addition to battling against a colonial power for independence, the thirteen colonies struggled with themselves to forge a national identity. In fact, after the Revolutionary War, many Americans wondered whether the bonds among the original colonies were strong enough to establish a single nation. They were, but only after the states struggled to define that nation and fought to keep it intact.

Numerous studies have pointed to these concepts to understand the United States, but often these works have defined “travel literature” narrowly or made struggle a precursor to, rather than a central fact of, American national identity. In both cases, scholars have too readily looked abroad, focusing on international travel or on struggles between the United States and other nations. Ironically, even though critics of travel literature often thrive on crossing academic and intellectual boundaries, many have neglected accounts of travel within national borders; likewise, many studies of early America have looked primarily at accounts by Europeans in America or by Americans in Europe to understand the culture of early America. But this international focus fails to appreciate the central role of “travel” itself in American national identity; in fact, far from simply constituting a leisure activity enjoyed only by the wealthy, travel has been one of the defining characteristics of the American people and their nation since its very creation. Furthermore, as conflict within the national borders was obviously central to the creation of the American republic, so, too, was travel within and among the various regions of the new nation.

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