Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America/Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity

By Eslinger, Ellen | Journal of the Early Republic, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America/Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity


Eslinger, Ellen, Journal of the Early Republic


Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America. By Susan Clair Imbarrato. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006. Pp. 254. Cloth, $42.95.)

Traveling South: Travel Narratives and the Construction of American Identity. By John D. Cox. (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005. Pp. 252. Cloth, $39.95.)

Reviewed by Ellen Eslinger

Few historians of pre-industrial America need to be sold on the value of travel literature. The journals kept by people who traveled the highways and byways provide vivid descriptions of the built environment and local custom, as well as often colorful characterizations. Perhaps most treasured is the way this genre can capture the mundane and familiar details of daily life that ordinarily escape written comment. Travel literature has its limits, of course. Observations are often superficial and highly subjective. They are nonetheless invaluable as firsthand accounts.

Historians also appreciate that travel accounts, especially when considered within the context of a collection, can also shed light on other issues. Hundreds of people who were not ordinarily diary writers decided to keep a record of their experiences while traveling the Overland Trail, providing John Mack Farragher with an unusual opportunity to study nineteenth-century gender conventions in Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven, CT, 1979). The two books under review here approach travel accounts as a literary genre rather than historical source. Some journeys were recreational, but both authors also consider records of less voluntary travel such as slave narratives and soldiers' diaries, and both broaden the category to include any type of writing about the experience of geographical movement. For Susan Clair Imbarrato, this includes memoirs as well as diaries, even those edited by descendants a century later. For John D. Cox, a walk down the street can constitute travel, and where physical movement is not involved, "ideological travel" will suffice. This reader began to wonder whether the genre of travel literature has been bled of any distinctive character.

John D. Cox studies accounts of travel in the South during the early national and antebellum eras. In the first chapter, he examines the work of two hallmark travelers, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and William Bartram. Each man, Cox argues, attempted to re-create himself as a "representative American man" through his travel writing (15). Although most closely identified with the American as farmer, Crevecoeur celebrated the freedom to travel. Bartram's travel writing reveals a tension between the Enlightenment scientist and Romantic poet. The second chapter pairs the narratives of two former slaves, Frederick Douglass and Solomon Northup. To be a slave was to be deprived the liberty of travel, "a fundamental freedom upon which the nation is founded" (81). Whereas other scholars have emphasized how literacy created Douglass as a "Representative Man," it was travel that allowed Douglass to become literate. The third chapter pairs Fanny Kemble and Harriet Jacobs and explores how travel writing by women "carries a special relationship to the concept of home" (104). Cox devotes an independent chapter to Frederick Law Olmsted's perception of southern culture as economically and socially backward and his belief that much of the difference could be traced to the opportunities available to a more mobile northern population. The final chapter analyzes the southern travel of Union soldiers who, like Olmsted, tended to view the South in a negative light, struggling to identify a shared American heritage and culture. …

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