Eight Months in Illinois: With Information to Immigrants. By William Oliver, with foreword by James E. Davis (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002; first published 1843. Pp. 260. Paper, $15.00).
Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854 to 1863. By George Byron Merrick (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001; first published 1909. Pp. 323. Illustrations and map. Paper, $15.95).
A-Rafting on the Mississip'. By Charles Edward Russell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001; first published 1928. Pp. 357. Illustrations. Paper, $15.95).
Scholars who called ten years ago for the rescue of travel writing from scholarly neglect, must today take some satisfaction in knowing that their call has been heeded. For during the past decade, there has been an explosion of interest in travel and travel writing among scholars in many disciplines. It is thus not surprising that university presses are choosing to issue reprints of some of the more graphic and engaging travel accounts, such as those reviewed here. Although each of these accounts has a specific purpose-providing practical information to potential British immigrants, recapturing the romance of river life and travel, and documenting the romance and rowdiness of rafters and the lumber industry-they do much more as well, by offering insights into the values and conditions prevailing in what is today thought of as the Midwest (then the West) from the 1840s to the end of the century.
Although William Oliver did not enthusiastically support emigration from Britain, he nevertheless wrote this book of advice for immigrants to Illinois and addressed it to the one British group he believed had more cause to emigrate than any other-the poor. Despite the back cover reference to Oliver as English, his vocabulary and allusions suggest he was a Scot, as does the book's inscription to "The Labouring Men of Roxburgshire." Writing about his travels through mostly southern and central Illinois in the early 1840s, Oliver took care to note the sort of information about Illinois he thought an aspiring immigrant should know before leaving home: most successful crops, common livestock, details about farm implements and soil, taxation and land purchasing systems, degree of cold (extreme temperatures low enough to make ink freeze in a pen held not far from a fire), hunting rituals, gun barrel lengths and calibers, and the cost of building and furnishing an 18 X 20 foot house. Readers were also warned that the education in "the West" was poor or non-existent, the snakes could be poisonous (he goes into great detail about a rattlesnake's fang mechanics), the whisky was execrable-the coffee worse, and the insects annoying enough to make the whisky seem palatable.
Oliver traveled through America by steamboat, railway, stage, and horse, and thus readers learn much about the methods and inconveniences of travel in nineteenth-century America. For example, it took twelve to fifteen days to go from New York to St. Louis via Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and cost roughly $45. The lumbering, bone-jarring stage was Oliver's least favorite form of travel, no doubt due in part to the roads. Locals created gaping holes in state roads by digging up theclay for chimneys, and even the national roads confronted travelers with boulders, huge tree stumps, and fences. Guidebooks did not yet exist, and so Oliver and others often had to rely on chance meetings with travelers to learn about accommodation prospects on the road ahead.
Oliver repeatedly referred to himself as "a native of the old country" and offered numerous observations about things he saw that seemed very American. These observations are among the most interesting in the book. He described Americans as "go-ahead," mechanical people, but he was perhaps most impressed by "the anomaly of semi-barbarian joined with civilized existence." (27) By this he meant the plethora of luxuries in stores and warerooms even in isolated towns surrounded by woods as far as the eye could see. …