Britons View America: Travel Commentary, 1860-1935

Britons View America: Travel Commentary, 1860-1935

Britons View America: Travel Commentary, 1860-1935

Britons View America: Travel Commentary, 1860-1935

Excerpt

This work takes up the story of the British traveler begun forty years ago by Jane Mesick in The English Traveler in America, 1785-1835 . and continued twenty years later by Max Berger in The British Traveller in America, 1836-1860, but it also departs sharply from the pattern of these two studies. Mesick and Berger devoted their energies to explication of the travelers' views on a wide variety of assorted, sometimes unrelated subjects. They were successful in providing a comprehensive summary of the varieties of views among British visitors to American shores in neat, self-contained monographs that make handy reference guides.

In this book an effort will be made to determine whether the vast body of British travel literature adds up to a coherent commentary, to ascertain whether points of agreement may be extracted from the more prominent and colorful polemics in which the visitors engaged. The peculiar advantage which foreign commentators have over native observers in being struck by that which the native takes for granted will be exploited. Topics which Americans have therefore generally neglected and which the Britons have not will be probed in some detail, while some of those upon which Americans have lavished great attention will be slighted. Differing conceptions of American society between the British visitors and American historians will be examined, and some of the interesting interpretive questions which these differences suggest will be pondered.

I do not assume that because the foreign commentators happened to agree on some subject, that they must consequently have been right. Their accuracy is another question that requires different and more extensive research. Because their books are essentially impressionistic, and because their observations are subject to a variety of limitations that I discuss in the Appendix, I do not want to pretend that my findings, based upon a processing of this kind of indefinite material, are any more definite than in fact they could be. But the observations of the travelers are worth something. They do increase our knowledge of the American past; they add a new dimension to other kinds of data dealing with American social history. Most important, because the stranger sees America freshly, his observations are often original, suggestive, and perceptive in ways which the native's, steeped in his own culture, cannot be. I have tried to take the fullest advantage of the special perspective of the foreigner.

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