Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Early Modern European Travel Writing after Orientalism

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Early Modern European Travel Writing after Orientalism

Article excerpt

Early Modern European Travel Writing After Orientalism

GERALD MACLEAN, The Rise of Oriental Travel: English Visitors to the Ottoman Empire, 1580-1720. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 267 pp. $59.95.

RICHMOND BARBOUR, Before Orientalism: London's Theater of the East 1576-1626. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 238 pp. $75.00.

DANIEL CAREY, ed. Asian Travel in the Renaissance. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, 234 pp. $39.95.

The personal travel narrative was just coming into its own in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Its origins range from faith-based pilgrimage narratives to the histories of Herodotus to the fictional mélange of Mandeville. Early modern travel writers based their narratives sometimes on firsthand information, sometimes on prior writings, or sometimes on rumor. Moreover, like other forms at the time, travel writing is an admixture defying easy classification: part autobiography, personal letter, geography, natural history, ethnography, and more. Because of these factors, travel writing is notoriously unreliable as a source of knowledge about early modern culture. Modern disciplinary divisions further complicate travel writing as a subject. Is it the domain of literary scholars, historians, geographers, or someone else? When scholars utilize travel writing, it typically has been employed only in the service of other research. Literary scholars, for example, have used travel writing to illuminate dramatic texts, but rarely as a means of insight in to early modern cultural practices.

That said, the insights travel writing can provide are often a product of these difficulties. As a record of cross-cultural encounters, for example, travel writing can reveal how the English regarded the cultural other, and how they regarded themselves. However, it was not until the emergence of interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies and post-colonial studies, and especially with the advent of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), that travel writing (though mostly post-Enlightenment European) became a rich source for studies of the rise of modernism, colonialism, and capitalism. Examining discursive and material practices through travel writing has helped scholars from various fields see the instability of travel writing as a source of insight rather than confusion. However, the insights gained from this work, especially about the development of discourses and practices of colonialism, are not as easily applied to the early modern period. The dominance of European economic and military power and the stability of binaries such as East/West and Christian/Muslim that characterize post-Enlightenment cross-cultural encounters cannot be assumed relevant in the early modern period. What is more, the dominance of scholarly interest in European colonialism sometimes has led to skewed readings of early modern cross-cultural encounters that attempt to establish originary points for later colonial projects.

The Ottoman and Mogul Empires, rather than European states, were economic and military centers of power in the early modern period. Encounters and exchanges between these cultures and Europe were often asymmetrical, and characterized by anxiety and fear on the part of the Europeans and indifference on the part of the Ottomans or Moguls. Imperial projects in the New World were clearly established in the sixteenth century, while such projects in Asia and Africa, comparatively, developed more slowly. European interest in these areas tended to focus on trade and commercial competition rather than colonization. This is not to say that the Europeans did not portray themselves as culturally or morally superior; the writing of travelers, diplomats, merchants, and others all deployed a range of rhetorical strategies to manage the instability and asymmetry of these encounters.

The books under consideration here, mostly the work of literary scholars, are continuations of the interdisciplinary practice begun by Said and first adapted to the early modern period by scholars such as Nabil Matar and Daniel Goffman. …

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