Documenting the American South Logo
Library of Southern Literature Header
Bored with Travelling  The Conjure Woman  Mr. Hastings and the Minister  And then he danced  Virginia 
Travel Writing
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

Between 1948 and 1962 the University of Oklahoma Press published six bulky volumes devoted to description of and comment upon travel books about the South: E. Merton Coulter's bibliography of travels in the Confederate South and five other volumes, under the general editorship of Thomas D. Clark, dealing with books published between 1527 and 1955. All told, these six bibliographical volumes take into account 2,703 titles. Although they include many books that are perhaps only marginally travel accounts (memoirs, for example, written long after journeys undertaken, or accounts of military campaigns and experiences), the editors are under no illusion that they have ferreted out all the travel books that explore or venture into the South. In the decades since 1955 many more travel books about the South have appeared.

Categorizing and evaluating this welter of writing is difficult. Even if one puts aside the obviously superficial and leaves out of the reckoning all those books that are more strictly "guides-to" than "reports-upon" (guidebooks to southern cities and regions began to circulate prior to the Civil War), and even if it were possible to assess the biases and prejudices all travelers to the South carry in their carpetbags, this most troublesome question would still remain: In "travel writing," is the "travel" of more importance than the "writing"? Does one read a travel book primarily as a more or less reliable record of things seen and persons encountered? Or does one read a travel book primarily for the recording of the traveler's experiences? Some travel books, of course, inform the historical sense while at the same time appealing to an aesthetic bent, but such books are exceptional. A literary critic can term Henry James's The American Scene (1904) "one of the great American documents," but a historian is apt to complain that James, in writing of Charleston, gives "the impression of having visited a state of mind rather than a city." And a historian might find vexing what other readers might find entertaining in the earliest English-language travel writing about the South—John Smith's "unusually vivid imagination."

Smith, whose True Relation of. . .Virginia was printed in 1609, was, in his active, roving life if not in his tendency to embroider fact with fiction, a typical early traveler. Of the more than 100 travel books by observers from the British Isles or by English colonials written between 1600 and 1750, 40 were by preachers and missionaries, 30 by government officials, 12 by merchants and fur traders, 10 by doctors and scientists, and others by ship captains, land speculators, and surveyors. Indians and natural history, and the unpleasantness and difficulty of travel, were major concerns of these writers. Perhaps most entertaining among these early writings are William Byrd's 1728 History of the Dividing Line, with its Virginian put-down of North Carolina and its inhabitants, and Ebenezer Cooke's The Sot-Weed Factor (1708), a virulent verse diatribe against Maryland and its settlers.

The second half of the 18th century in the South was a time of war, new nationhood, and expansion westward across the Appalachians, as well as a period in which slavery and the condition of blacks began to claim the attention of travelers. Most reliable among these reporters were those whose business and professional concerns had prompted their travels, men such as Thomas Jefferson, whose Notes on the State of Virginia appeared in 1785; William Bartram, whose Travels through North Carolina (1791) recounts his pioneering botanical expeditions; and Philip Vickers Fithian, whose journals deal with his employment as a tutor in the Tidewater and his work as a frontier missionary.

By the turn of the century the corps of travelers in the South had been swelled by numerous Europeans, who came to America sometimes on professional errands but more frequently as observers of the American experiment in democracy. They were drawn to the South by Washington's Mt. Vernon, a mecca for travelers, but they also wished to investigate plantation society and to inquire about the growth and expansion of slavery. Increasingly, the South was viewed as a region distinct from the rest of the new United States, almost as another country. Access to this South was primarily by water—along the coastal shipping lanes and into the interior by way of the Ohio and Mississippi. Notable among travel accounts of the first decades of the 19th century are Thomas Ashe's Travels in America (1808), John Melish's Travels through the United States of America (1812), J. K. Paulding's Letters from the South (1817), and Timothy Flint's Recollections of the Last Ten Years (1826).

As the American nation lurched toward civil war in the middle decades of the century, more and more travelers visited the South; Thomas D. Clark observes that never again would there be so many "in so short a time." By the 1830s most travelers moved along segments of what had become an established "Grand Tour" in America: along the seaboard to Georgia, across Alabama to Mobile and New Orleans, then up the Mississippi and Ohio, with dips into the interiors of Tennessee and Kentucky. Many of the travelers were distinguished Europeans (Charles Dickens, Harriet Martineau, Charles Lyell, Fredrika Bremer, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frederick Maryatt), but the most important travel writing of the antebellum years (Tocqueville's Democracy in America is not really a travel book) was the work of a young New Englander, Frederick Law Olmsted, who published three books detailing his travels through the South, with A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856) being perhaps the most readable. After the war, which occasioned a good bit of fortuitous travel, travelers from abroad tended to bypass the South in their eagerness to board transcontinental trains headed west, but Americans, particularly American journalists, flocked to the South to see and report on postwar conditions and Reconstruction efforts. In addition, "promotional" travel writing extolling the attractions of a "New South" began to appear. The booster literature may not have advanced southern prosperity, but books such as Whitelaw Reid's After the War: A Southern Tour (1866) may have furthered the efforts of Radical Republican legislators; later, James Pike's The Prostrate State: South Carolina under Negro Government (1874) and Edward King's The Great South (1875) undoubtedly helped into being a climate of opinion that welcomed the end of Reconstruction efforts. The last decades of the century were notable for several quirky individualistic classics of southern travel writing: Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1883); Charles Dudley Warner's On Horseback (1888), about a trip into some of the more rugged sections of Appalachia; and Nathaniel Bishop's two books about his small-craft voyages along the seaboard and down the Mississippi—Voyage of the Paper Canoe (1878) and Four Months in a Sneak-Box (1879).

In the 20th century the South again figured in the "grand tour" of visitors from abroad, and after World War I the automobile and better highways made the region more accessible to visitors of all sorts, who came in search of health, for economic advantage, and out of curiosity about southern social conditions—with race relations the topic of most concern. Attempting to "get at the facts" about black-white relations was the motive for Ray Stannard Baker's Following the Color Line (1908); Jay Saunders Redding's No Day of Triumph (1942) is about an auto trip undertaken to obtain insight into the lives of southern blacks; and the issue of race is ever present in Jonathan Daniels's A Southerner Discovers the South (1938), which Rupert B. Vance characterizes as "the definitive travel account of the South in the depression." Other striking books from the Great Depression era are Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White's You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) and James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), two books that wed prose and photography. Photographs began to be incorporated in southern travel books as early as the first decade of this century, being essential and integral parts of Clifton Johnson's explorations of southern rural life, Highways and Byways of the South (1904) and Highways and Byways of the Mississippi Valley (1906). Today, the camera—still, motion picture, video—is as ubiquitous an instrument of southern travel "writing" as the word processor.

Since World War II, when technological change and new wealth set in accelerated motion forces that would forever alter the old agrarian order, and since the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, which marked a drastic unsettling of the "color line" in the South, there has been no abatement of the fascination with, and concern about, the land below the Mason-Dixon line. Books continue to appear that undertake to explore and explain what Jonathan Daniels termed the South's "warm dark." Among all these books, among all this travel writing about the contemporary South, three in particular stand out: John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (1961), about the southern encounters of a white man who chemically darkens his skin; Albert Murray's account of his tentative return to the land of his birth and youth, South to a Very Old Place (1971); and perhaps the finest of all the reports on voyages in the wake of Huck and Jim's archetypal trip down the Mississippi, the Britisher Jonathan Raban's Old Glory (1981).

Robert White
York University

Thomas D. Clark, ed., Travels in the Old South: A Bibliography, 3 vols. (1956), Travels in the New South: A Bibliography, 2 vols. (1962); E. Merton Coulter, Travels in the Confederate States: A Bibliography (1948); Eugene Schwaab and Jacqueline Bull, eds., Travels in the Old South, Selected from Periodicals of the Times (1973).