Reference > Cambridge History > Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I > Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846 > The Background of the Travellers
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

I. Travellers and Observers, 1763–1846.

§ 1. The Background of the Travellers.

THE LITERATURE of travel, fresh, varied, and cosmopolitan, doubtless owes its principal charm to its effect upon the sense of wonder, and hence in the last analysis is to be understood in its bearing upon imagination and poetic art; but its relation to history and geography is not superficial. Accordingly, we may first recall such dates and events as will suggest in outline the expanding region in which the second great division of American travellers range. With the close of the French and Indian War begins the supremacy of the English-speaking race in North America. Before twenty years had passed, the Colonies, no longer a mere fringe of population along the Atlantic, have achieved their independence, and possess a territory reaching inland to the Mississippi. Twenty years later, in 1803, comes the Louisiana Purchase, when the wily Napoleon, for a consideration, and to thwart his colonizing foe across the Channel, endowed the Americans with a tract of land extending from that great river north-west to the Rocky Mountains, the importance of which even Jefferson, with his westward-looking eyes, was unable to grasp in full. Another eight years, and there is a temporary check in the Astoria Settlement, later recorded by Irving. Then comes the War of 1812–14, and after it a rapid inrush of immigration. Of the native citizens, two generations have been born since the War of Independence; Revolutionary heroes are passing; and the new leaders are alien to England. The nation has become distinct. In 1819 Spain relaxes her feeble hold upon Florida. In 1823, twenty years after the Louisiana Purchase, the utterance of the Monroe Doctrine announces to the world the position of the United States in the Occident. Meantime internal waterways and highroads have been developed; and subsequently, during the presidency of Jackson, the steam locomotive is introduced. The year 1845 marks the annexation of Texas; and with the cession of New Mexico and California in 1848, the country virtually assumes its present proportions. Almost a century has passed since the nondescript Captain Carver, immediately after the French and Indian War, conceived the idea of opening up the vast north-western tract to the enterprise of Great Britain. The interest of travellers has shifted from the character and habits of the roving Indian to the domestic manners of East and West, North and South; and science has moved from a less impersonal, yet fairly exact, observation of plants and animals, or of subterranean rivers in a terrestrial paradise, to the precise geology of a Featherston-haugh or a Lyell.   1
  This period of travel saw the rise of modern geography as an exact science, and the development of the ancillary sciences, geology, botany, zoology, and anthropology. If the great epoch of modern geographical discovery began with 1768 and the voyages of the Englishman Captain Cook, the scientific elaboration of results by Continental investigators also mainly occupied the second half of the eighteenth century. Linnæus was still alive, and had followers collecting specimens in America. Zimmermann, who translated the Travels of William Bartram into German, likewise ushered in the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals as well as of mankind; while Blumenbach the anthropologist was making his famous collection of human skulls at Göttingen. The first work on physical geography ever published, that of the Swede Bergman, appeared in 1766, shortly before the time when books of American travel began to grow numerous. The influence of Continental science upon American observers is often obvious, as in the case of Linnæus, to which Zimmermann refers in his translation of Bartram. Indeed, a pupil of Linnæus, Pehr Kalm, who has been included among the botanists of Philadelphia, is remembered for his description of Niagara Falls. But the influence was pervasive and general, so that geography proper soon became domesticated in this country. The Geography Made Easy of Jedidiah Morse, first published at New Haven in 1784, quickly went through a number of editions and transformations. About 1796 President Dwight of Yale, in his Travels, records that a work of Morse is studied by both freshmen and sophomores, probably referring to a revision of the more extensive American Georgraphy of 1789. Dwight himself made judicious use of it. The indefatigable Morse, though not a Humboldt, a Ritter, or a Leopold von Buch, was a lowly precursor of the European scientists who furnished the next generation with ideals in geography and travel.   2

   Nature and the Natural Man  
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