Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

15
John Ledyard: the American Traveller and his Sentimental Journeys

It is not much to our credit if, as students of the eighteenth century, we seldom accord more than a footnote, if indeed that much, to the field of eighteenth-century accomplishment that is represented by names like Anson and Commodore Byron, Bligh and Carteret and Wallis, Bougainville and La Pérouse, Kerguelen and Marion du Fresne. There are signs that a generation which has learned to concern itself, however superficially, with ecology may redress this balance, and teach us that we cannot know the European Enlightenment unless we know its navigators and hydrographers, who are necessarily also its first 'experimental' ethnologists and zoologists. It is high time. And the consequences may be extraordinary and astonishing. What happens, for instance, to our image of 'the age of sensibility', if we try to accommodate, as a massive and defining enterprise of that age, the most momentous and heroically sustained navigations of all, the three voyages of Captain James Cook? What does Cook amount to, in the image that we make for ourselves of that Europe of the 1760s and 1770s which Cook departed from, and returned to? So far as I am aware, the question has been put, and a tentative answer to it has been ventured, by only one scholar — by J.C. Beaglehole, whose magnificent erudition on everything that concerns the great hydrographer is monumentally summed up in his great editions of Cook's Journals. Beaglehole, more than any one else, has the right to put the question:

He was not a tortured Titan, like Dr. Johnson; or charming, like Goldsmith; or witty, like Sheridan; or profound, like Henry Cavendish or Burke; or dashing, like Wolfe; he did not build an empire, like Warren Hastings, or maintain a vast correspondence, like Horace Walpole. Shall we then say he had a plain heroic magnitude, and let it go at that? Or shall we give a list of the virtues taught by the sea, and picture him as a character out of a Conrad novel, a serious sailor, a survivor of typhoons, a largescale rendering of Fidelity? No; because although he had that

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