The early twenty-first century is an age when many Americans take distant travel for granted and feel themselves broadly familiar with the entire globe thanks to the news media, television programs, and films. However, if they do want to learn more about the world, they are not likely seek enlightenment in travel books, which constitute a distinctly minor and vaguely defined literary genre that rarely attracts attention.
This was not always so. During the nineteenth century, travel books were among the best-selling and most enthusiastically read books throughout the United States, and many eminent literary figures of the time wrote them. Before the advent of modern mass communication and entertainment, Americans felt isolated from the rest of the world and were hungry for information. The nineteenth century was, moreover, the last great era of world exploration, when travelers might literally stumble across undiscovered lands or the remains of lost civilizations.
Despite the importance of travel writing in the nineteenth century, relatively little critical attention has been paid to it. Larzer Ziff’s Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780-1910 is a welcome contribution. A literary scholar, Ziff has built his career around innovative explorations of American culture. In Return Passages he examines early American travel writing as a literary genre, focusing on its peculiarly American traits. To this end, he has selected five travel writers whom he regards the best and most important representatives of the field and devotes a long chapter to each: John Ledyard, John Lloyd Stephens, Bayard Taylor, Mark Twain, and Henry James.
Each of these writers made signal contributions to the travel writing field. Of the five, only Mark Twain and Henry James are still well known and widely read; however, they all enjoyed immense popularity during their lifetimes and left enduring legacies. While Ziff’s focus is on the writers’ travels and travel writings, he provides enough biographical information on each—particularly on the first three—to enable readers to see their writings in the larger contexts of the writers’ lives.
Born in New England in 1752, John Ledyard published only one book during his lifetime but had what may have been the most incredible travel career of any of the five writers. In 1774, he sailed on a merchant ship to England, where he was forced into military service on the eve of the American Revolution. He managed to join Royal Navy captain James Cook’s third and last great voyage of exploration, which carried him throughout the Pacific Ocean. He returned home after the colonies had won their independence and made his name by publishing his experiences as A Journal of Captain Cook’s Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean and in Quest of a North-West Passage (1783). This book, which Ziff calls the first American travel book, is remarkable in several ways. As the first published account of Cook’s voyage, it found an eager audience and also contained the only published firsthand description of Cook’s death at the hands of Hawaiian islanders. Ledyard was unusual for his time in empathizing with the Hawaiians, who had been roughly treated by Cook. Ziff sees Ledyard’s empathy for non-Western peoples of primitive cultures as an outgrowth of the democratic values he imbibed as an American.
Following the success of his book, Ledyard sought support for further ambitious journeys, including a planned solo walk across North America. Since Ledyard could not sail to the point where he wanted to start his overland journey, he went to Russia, hoping to cross Siberia to the North Pacific and then find his way to the North American coast—virtually to walk around the world. He might have succeeded, had the Russian government not stopped him from completing his trek across Siberia. He did succeed, however, in becoming the first American to travel inside Siberia, and his journal of that trip was published posthumously. Ledyard’s next plan was to cross Africa. However, he contracted bilious fever in Egypt and died in Cairo in 1789, barely thirty-seven years old.
John Lloyd Stephens—whom Ziff regards as possibly the greatest travel writer of them all—is better remembered than Ledyard, not so much for his writings as for his contributions to Mesoamerican archaeology. Stephens wrote four great books of travel: Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837), Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia, and Poland (1838), Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841), and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). It is for the last two works that Stephens is best known, as they established him as the founder of Mayan archaeology. What Ziff most admires about Stephens’s writings is his adeptness at alternating between descriptions of his personal adventures and...
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