Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives Introduction

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(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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Eighteenth-Century Travel Narratives

Travel narratives became one of the most popular and respected European literary genres during the eighteenth century. These narratives included descriptive accounts of the geography, monuments, and customs of foreign lands. Although tales by European travelers to exotic destinations had existed for centuries, eighteenth-century travel narratives proved unique for a variety of reasons. The sheer number of books published about foreign travel far surpassed those of previous centuries, outselling all other published works in England with the exception of the novel. Technological improvements in roads, carriages, and ships meant that a far greater number of ordinary citizens, not just explorers and soldiers, had the opportunity to travel throughout the continent or overseas and record their experiences. Reflecting the scientific spirit of the age, eighteenth-century travel narratives responded to the public's growing appetite for knowledge of the world by more accurately describing the lands and peoples of distant regions than the more fictionalized accounts written from the Middle Ages to the Romantic Period.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of eighteenth-century travel narratives was their blending of factual information with artistic literary content. In order to garner critical praise or popular success, it was not enough for an author to only record facts about the natural wonders of the lands to which he or she traveled. On the other hand, authors who focused more narrowly on how their travels affected them personally were accused of being egoists and without literary appeal. The most acclaimed travel narratives were like those of Joseph Addison's Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705), Daniel Defoe's A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727), and Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). These narratives entertained the reader with a combination of descriptive analysis of what was distinct or remarkable about a foreign land and people along with philosophical or moral reflections about what those differences might imply.

More often than not, eighteenth-century travel narratives titillated their readers with descriptions of the strange customs of foreigners. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Embassy Letters, written between 1716 and 1718 and published in 1763, offered her readers views of Turkey which few European men would have been allowed to witness, namely Turkish baths and harems. Although Montagu's impressions of Turkey were generally favorable, most accounts of foreign lands and customs emphasized central European cultural superiority. Elizabeth Craven's A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople (1789), for example, depicted Turkey as a depraved and crumbling empire. Jacob Wallenberg's My...

(The entire section is 628 words.)