In 1865, Louisa May Alcott wrote in her journal on her first transatlantic crossing, "I could not realise that my long-desired dream was coming true". The joyful anticipation voiced here is characteristic of 19th-century American travellers for whom the Old World was the goal of visionary desire, a place of pre-existent familiarity, known through literature and art and encapsulating something which could never be replicated in the United States.
Stowe's book discusses the experiences, and the literary representations of those experiences, of many of these Americans for whom a trip to Europe was the fulfilment of years of longing. His subjects are wide ranging, including Afro-American slaves (David Dorr and William Wells Brown), members of the New England intelligentsia (R. W. Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Henry James, Henry Adams) and humorists (Charles Browne and Mark Twain).
Stowe's material is highly topical, and his study is the latest in a number of recent works on Anglo-American travel literature. He is specific about the "new angle" which it represents, though: its central concern is "the uses that travellers and writers from Washington Irving to Henry Adams made of Europe and European travel", in particular the ways in which Europe served as a stage for independent self-definition in the context of class, gender, race, and nationality.
The issues which Stowe addresses in this respect are extremely interesting - the prevalence of pre-conceptualisation and "literary" response; travel as ritual and as commodification; polyvocality; the significance of gender in the construction of narrative identity.
But he often misses the opportunity to develop and probe these ideas, leaving them as tantalisingly suggestive generalisations, such as his observation that "Writing and travel are creative acts. . . they are are also necessarily interpretive acts". Especially notable is his reluctance - presaged in a curiously self-deprecating note about what the book does not aim to do - to engage with current travel discourse theory, an engagement which would have considerably enhanced some of his readings.
This is especially observable in the chapters on Fuller and James. The former proposes the notion of heteroglossia (awkwardly introduced in a single-paragraphed incursion into Bakhtinian theory, which seems merely a gesture) in terms of "masculine" and "feminine" voices, but it fails to explore these concepts in detailed analysis; moreover, while recent post-colonial feminist critics are referred to, their findings are not applied to Fuller, an obvious subject for such an approach. Similarly, the chapter on James makes brief reference to the Freudian connection between travel, guilt and empowerment, but is frustratingly tentative about some of the valuable possible angles of approach to Jamesian travel discourse which it suggests: James's constant deconstruction of each of his variously adopted voices, his awareness of individual displacement within the foreign, and his representation of Europe as negotiable capital, for instance.
It would also have perhaps been better to have omitted the section on James's fiction, since it seems too large and diverse a topic for the space granted it and has led to a rather arbitrary-seeming choice of texts for discussion.
The best chapter is that on Adams. Here Stowe displays most sensitivity to textual complexity and to Adams's self-marginalisation, enacted within the multiple dualities of his writing. He also points to Adams's exploitation of the equivocal relationship between experience and language, and in so doing foregrounds a perennial problematic of all travel writing.
Altogether, this is a useful study, but with its over-insistence on generalisation generating a fair amount of repetition, it does not always come close enough or go directly enough to its subject; it might perhaps have been better had it attempted to cover less ground, and to sharpen its central focus.
Shirley Foster is lecturer in English and American literature, University of Sheffield.
Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture
Author - William W. Stowe
ISBN - 0 691 03364 1
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 256