American eyes: Negotiation and culture in nineteenth-century travel narratives in the Americas

Date of Completion

January 2000


Literature, Comparative|Literature, Latin American|Literature, Caribbean|Literature, American




From the conquest onwards, travel writing has played an important role in creating “America” as a new discursive reality. The political flux of the nineteenth century, especially, with its emphasis on exploration and transgression of boundaries, offered a means for reimagining both the national community and individual identities. This cross-cultural study of travel literature reveals the discursive processes of nation formation in both the United States and Latin America. Southern and Northern travel writers undertook the “civilizing” project of America by narrating its history and describing its inhabitants, its societies, and nature. ^ Chapter One surveys the elements of the “quest” for knowledge and the early models for such quests provided by Alexander von Humboldt and Alexis de Tocqueville. Chapter Two examines the Romantic quest for disappeared indigenous societies in John Lloyd Stephens's travel texts, infused with Orientalist tropes. Chapter Three probes the aesthetic function of the picturesque and the idea of history as romance in Frances Calderón de la Barca's work, which dissects Mexico and inspires foreign intervention. ^ Chapter Four considers Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's travel narrative, which outlines the tension between barbarism and a capitalist, technological utopia of progress in his construction of “the United States.” Chapters Five and Six explore the uses of the natural sciences to define race. Chapter Five analyzes Louis and Elizabeth Cary Agassiz's journey to Brazil as an attempt to find metaphors of race that might be applied to the post-Civil War United States. Chapter Six focuses on George Catlin's comparative project of Indian culture in the United States and Latin America, which reveals the mechanisms of the appropriation of Indian mythology by US culture. ^ Chapter Seven deals with neocolonial spaces reinvented by Fanny Chambers Gooch in her descriptions of Mexico. Chapter Eight examines José Martí's images of the United States during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Martí uncovers the mythologies and processes of conflict and dissension in US society, relating them to his revolutionary, anti-colonial project in Cuba. The Conclusion explores, in broader terms, the complex exchanges between race and nation in the Americas, more often than not, based on racial exclusion. ^