Academic journal article Shofar

The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Writing, 1790-1876

Academic journal article Shofar

The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Writing, 1790-1876

Article excerpt

The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Writing, 1790-1876, by Brian Yorhers. Aldershot Hampshire GB/Burlington VT: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2007. 147 pp. $89.95.

The premise of this book is that nineteenth-century American travel writing about the Holy Land is a malleable but coherent literary tradition. Noting the genre's roots in eighteenth-century tales of Barbary captivity, Yothers devotes most of his energy to describing contrasts and comparisons among motifs and themes in a wide range of nineteenth-century Orientalist writings. He exposes thematic continuities and variations that comprise a web of inter-textual debate carried on by professional scholars and clergymen, missionaries, pilgrims, genteel travel writers, and major literary figures, each of whom sought to produce a distinctive account of the Holy Land.

Yothers mainly offers a literary taxonomy. Occasionally he touches upon wider issues, such as how Holy Land travelers imagined themselves and the United States in ways that went against chauvinistic orthodoxies of American exceptionalism. Or why it is reductionistic to say that travelers to West Asia found only the Holy Land they sought and nothing more. But such explorations into cultural and ideological analysis are few. And they remain undeveloped relative to Yothers' methodical, somewhat plodding approach to the texts he chose to examine.

The author organizes the material within a framework of cross reference that enables him to discuss similarities and differences among various writers. He treats the "Skeptical Piety of Protestant Pilgrims" (e.g., Edward Robinson, and William Prime) in relation to the less mainstream "Alternative Orthodoxies" (e.g., Clorinda Minor, Orson Hyde, and William Henry Odenheimer); "Skeptical Oriental Romance" (e.g., John Lloyd Stephens, and William Cullen Bryant) more or less in contrast with "Quotidian Pilgrimages," travel accounts that emphasize farcical elements (e.g., Mark Twain, satirist, and David Dorr, traveler and slave). The book closes with an extended analysis of Herman Melville's Clarel. This work, which has received renewed critical attention in recent years, seems to have engaged Yothers as no other in the book. Without directly saying so, he depicts Melville as an author of postmodern sensibilities before such a phrase could have been imagined. Yothers believes that to Melville's fictionalizing imagination, "the Holy Land is a site at which the primacy of interpretation becomes manifest, and thus the Holy Land provides the best conceivable backdrop for his relentless interrogation of the relationship between pluralism and authority, experience and interpretation. …

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