The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846

§ 5. Their Common Interests

The commonest type among these works seems to be the journal, which is the form used by William Bartram; but the epistolary type, represented by Crèvecœur, by Dwight, and by Wirt in his Letters of the British Spy, is very common. The general range of substance is displayed by circumstantial titles in the Bibliography. Among objects of interest to many were, in the early years of the Republic, the persons of Washington and Jefferson, and, in his time, the picturesque figure of Jackson; and among natural wonders, Niagara Falls, the “Rock Bridge” of Virginia, and the Mammoth Cave. This, after its discovery by Hutchins in 1809, took its place in the attractions of Kentucky with the furry cap of Boone. The Indians, of course, supplied an unfailing interest. Their habits, as in Bartram, speculation concerning their origin, as in Timothy Dwight, and remarks upon their language, as in Carver, are stock material; so, too, such lists as Carver’s of plants and animals. Another topic is seen in Gilbert Imlay’s anticipations of states to be formed from the land to the north and west of the Ohio. Or an occasional enthusiast, possibly remembering Berkeley’s project for educating the natives, will found an imaginary school of letters in a suitable landscape. Thus Stansbury in central New York, almost fifty years before the opening of Cornell University, deems the site of Ithaca most fitting for a college: “Inexhaustible stores for the study of natural history will always be at hand, and for all other sciences the scholar will be secluded in a romantic retirement which will give additional zest to his researches.” The attention of others, as Fanny Kemble and Harriet Martineau, is drawn to the negro and his master in the South, more than ever, perhaps, after the anti-slavery agitation in England.

But the interest in slavery, in frontier life, and indeed in all the main topics of the later travellers, is not peculiar to them, partly because essentials are necessarily repeated, partly because subsequent observers have read, and often consciously imitate, their predecessors. Crèvecœur’s ghastly picture of the slave in chains would impress any sensitive reader. But nowhere could imitation be clearer than in respect to impossible marvels, which even the steadiest early observers like Bartram are impelled to relate. We read in his description of an enraged alligator: “The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws; clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils”; and, aware that this guileless traveller was merely yielding to custom, we are not led to undervalue his notes on sub-tropical fauna. Nor are we forced to discredit an entire later work, wherein adventures, like some of those in Ashe, may be altogether imaginary. Further, when unconscious imitation passes into extensive borrowing, as in Carver, we must recall the tolerance which the eighteenth century showed to this sort of indebtedness, and not condemn the debtor out of hand. So late as the year 1836, Irving could employ good sources in his own way, with a general acknowledgment of the fact in his Introduction.

For various reasons the earlier travels are more interesting; and it may be said that the best of them appeared, or were written, between 1775 and 1800. We may select as typical the Travels of Carver (1778), the Travels of William Bartram (1791), and the Letters from an American Farmer of Crèvecœur (1782).