The above description of Americans comes from the British political and social theorist Harriet Martineau, who traveled throughout the United States in 1834. Scores of European observers came to America in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, eager to observe this new world experiment in creating a democratic republic. Many were quick to find faults with elements of the American character and political system.
Some of the best travel writing offers expansive views of places, peoples, cultures, and the surprise, delight, and emotion of a carefully-observed first encounter with something new. In the right hands, a reader can travel with the author in encountering the unknown. And while travel can be expansive and enlightening, it can also bring out some of our unconscious (or conscious) prejudices. As travelers, we bring our baggage with us, in many different ways. Much of the European and American writing in this exhibition shows clear evidence of bias, from fault-finding Britons in the early republic to proud and picky nineteenth-century Americans abroad on grand tours of the Old World.
This exhibition shows a variety of genres under the heading of what can broadly be called travel writing. There are works of exploration, political treatises, partisan attacks, and the occasional fictional travelogue as well. Taken together, they provide some interesting starting points for making further cultural and historical explorations and armchair travel on your own.
Many thanks are due to Rick Jones for creating the poster for this exhibition.
—Jeffrey Makala, Special Collections and Archives