Harriet Martineau. Retrospect of Western Travel. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. xxi + 202 pp. $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7656-0214-5; $92.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7656-0213-8.
Reviewed by Jamie L. Bronstein (Department of History, New Mexico State University )
Published on H-SHEAR (January, 2001)
Choosing readings for an undergraduate course on the early republic is a difficult task, due to an abundance of excellent scholarship about, and primary sources from, the period. The appearance of a new paperback version of Harriet Martineau's Retrospect of Western Travel, abridged and introduced by Daniel Feller, will make the process of paring down a syllabus easier. A fast read at under 200 pages, it provides students with the opportunity of seeing the young republic through the eyes of a rare visitor who was able to shake off feelings of European superiority to limn American culture with a witty, able, and often admiring pen.
Daniel Feller's brief and bouncy introduction brings Martineau to life. Disappointed in her bodily powers through illness and deafness, she took solace in the life of the mind. As a single woman in a period when domesticity was the norm, she wrote in order to support herself, breaking into fields of economic and political thought formerly reserved for men. Feller portrays Martineau as a radical free-marketeer and opponent of slavery, who refused to keep her opinions to herself during her two-year visit to the United States. Firsthand observation only intensified her opposition to slavery, and her brave unwillingness to keep her opinions to herself made her unpopular in some cities she visited.
Retrospect of Western Travel (1838) was the second major book Martineau produced about her American travels. In Society in America, (1837), she tested the Americans' commitment to democracy, finding that it fell short only on their attachment to slavery and their confinement of women to the domestic sphere. Having experienced success with her first book, she produced the Retrospect, a more chronological and reportorial work than her first, more thematic, book.
Feller's abridgement of Martineau's work omits thirteen chapters of scenic description and biography to focus on her firsthand observations. Martineau's travels take her from her transatlantic ship to New York City and West Point. She attends three weddings, many church services, and several holidays, including Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. She tours upstate New York, transported by a highly unpleasant canal-boat. She visits American prisons, interviewing prisoners about their crimes, and observes education in action at schools for the deaf and blind. She visits Washington D.C., and finds President Jackson feeling paranoid after an assassination attempt. She travels to Jefferson's Virginia, cuts south to New Orleans, then travels up the Mississippi on a packed steamboat. She visits Cincinnati, which for her encapsulates the promise of the west, and ends her juggernaut among abolitionists in Boston.
Everywhere she looks, Martineau sees a cheering prosperity. "The young women all well-dressed, the men all at work or amusement, the farms all held in fee-simple, the stores all inadequate to their custom." (32) This promise balances out a certain immaturity, which Martineau chronicles like a kindly parent. Although the Americans seem to her to be imitative in their culture and lacking rigor in their science (too easily led into such childish fancies as phrenology, spiritualism, and animal magnetism), she has no doubt that they will eventually settle down to cultural richness.
In contrast with some European visitors, even Martineau's harshest condemnations of the Americans are not very harsh. She finds Southerners deluded about the benefits of slavery, and Northerners largely deluded that colonization is the answer, and hints several times at the possibility that the slavery question will provoke open conflict. Nonetheless, she believes that the honesty and integrity of the American public (in contrast with some of its leaders) will resolve the question.
Her book also includes short but bitingly honest sketches of many of the leaders of Jacksonian politics -- Jackson, Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, among others. Her willingness to describe their appearances and modes of speaking, their vices and their achievements, originally elicited some bad reviews for the book in the American press, but it makes the book a wonderful resource for students of the period.
Most engagingly, Martineau's somewhat detached and anthropological commentary reveals the otherwise hidden texture of early American life. West Point cadets sneak cigarettes, while lecturing new students about the evils of smoking. A Quaker bridegroom works hard to stifle a laugh during a long silence at his own wedding. Vandals add speech-balloons to the mouths of people portrayed on hotel wallpaper. An "eminent professor" staves off boredom during a Harvard graduation by doodling on the commencement program. Hardy New England boys get their exercise in winter by "coasting" down the snow-covered hills and streets on planks of wood. These little continuities of human nature link the reader to an America that otherwise seems distant and surprising.
The edited version of Martineau's book flows smoothly and feels like an integrated whole -- testimony to Feller's judicious editing. He has also added a helpful index and footnotes that identify most figures and events. Although many contemporary American critics panned Martineau's book, Feller is an unabashed admirer of Martineau: "Whatever flaws her American books contain are outweighed by her talent for insightful reporting, her great store of good sense, and above all the shining clarity of her moral purpose." (xix) Anyone looking for student readings on the early republic will want to acquire a copy of Retrospect on Western Travel, and see whether they agree.
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Jamie L. Bronstein. Review of Martineau, Harriet, Retrospect of Western Travel.
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