Planned Serendipity: American Travelers and the Transatlantic Voyage in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

By Rennella, Mark; Walton, Whitney | Journal of Social History, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Planned Serendipity: American Travelers and the Transatlantic Voyage in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries


Rennella, Mark, Walton, Whitney, Journal of Social History


In a 1903 biography of William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), an expatriate sculptor from Boston who lived most of his life in Italy, the author Henry James (1843-1916) commented on what he believed nineteenth-century American travelers abroad had contributed to the United States in the twentieth century: "The dawn of American consciousness of the complicated world." (1) Thirty years later growing numbers of Americans continued to make their own voyages across the Atlantic, and experienced their own "dawns of consciousness." Mount Holyoke College student Sarah (Sally) Johnston wrote to her family about her first sighting of Europe at dawn from aboard the SS Paris in 1938: "We got up about 4:30 a.m. and watched us come into Plymouth Harbor about 5:30 a.m.... We stayed up on deck for ages, freezing to death, but watching the sunrise come over the hills of the harbor.... It was very lovely and exciting, and in spite of being very cold the whole thing was well worth the lack of sleep." (2)

Unfortunately, that "dawn," until very recently, has remained largely obscured from the view of American historiography. One of the most enduring obstacles to appreciating and taking seriously the pleasures of travel, including the transatlantic voyage, is the habit of American exceptionalism--an age-old disposition to see America as a new, fresh, democratic and "reformed" alternative to the entrenched ways of an hierarchical, aristocratic, and corrupt "Old World." Some critics of exceptionalism have described it as virulently parochial: "the cognitive complement of an aggressive, implacable mode of collective [national] solidarity." (3) Although many Victorians like Henry James roundly criticized exceptionalism in private correspondence as well as in published writings, the exceptionalist position certainly gained a second wind after Americans' disappointment with World War I and its aftermath. Intellectual icons such as Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) sneered at the European interests of elite Victorians, condemning them for abandoning an "organic" American aesthetic--as if creativity could or should respect national boundaries. (4)

More recently, academics' distaste for the rich and/or intellectual Victorian elite in American history has perpetuated the obscuring of the history of foreign travel by Americans. Historians often took Victorian elites to task for leaving the United States for long periods of time, ignoring the fact that frequent travel offered fresh perspectives on their native country that would have been difficult to obtain if they had remained tethered to their native land. (5) Additionally, some scholars of European and American travel romanticized the early days of modern travel in the nineteenth century. According to Wolfgang Schivelbusch, as capitalism shaped the experience of larger numbers of travelers, travel abroad became less individualistic and more commodified and homogeneous. (6) Similarly, Paul Fussell, James Buzard, and Harvey Levenstein distinguish between travelers and tourists, indicating that the individualistic and original experience of elites who traveled independently was no longer possible sometime around the late nineteenth or early twentieth century when mass tourism rendered travel predictable, repetitive, uniform, and superficial. (7) Much scholarship on travel, in short, often interprets its history as one of decline and/or missed opportunities. (8)

However, recent interest in the forces of globalization has encouraged some historians to overcome barriers of exceptionalism and class prejudice and explore this era with new, exciting questions. (9) Some have gone so far as to insist upon the agency of travelers, including tourists, to make individual meaning out of travel, in spite of the power of capitalist imperatives, the packaging and routine of mass tourism, and the herding elements of high-speed land and air travel. Rudy Koshar in his recent book, Histories of Leisure, asserts that the unpredictability and variety of experiences associated with leisure travel make it historically inassimilable to one broad theory: "This . …

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