[Summertime is perfect for travel, whether around these United States or abroad. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy travel writing across our history, leading up to a special Guest Post from one of my favorite travelers and travel writing fans!]
On what separates colonial propaganda from travel writing, and what links the two genres.
William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation (unpublished in Bradford’s lifetime but completed sometime around 1651) is often considered the definitive account of the Pilgrims’ first few decades in New England, while for those looking to delve deeper Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan (1637) represents a prominent alternative vision of the New England Puritan experience and community. But the first two published texts that documented the unfolding histories of the Plymouth Pilgrim community were written by a less well-known Mayflower passenger and Plymouth luminary: Edward Winslow, himself a multi-term governor of the plantation and the author of Mourt’s Relation (1622; co-written with Bradford, but Winslow was apparently the principal author) and Good Newes from New England (1624; entirely Winslow’s work). While Mourt’s Relation is largely a historical chronicle, documenting the first year or so of the Plymouth community (from the Mayflower’s December 1620 landing off Cape Cod up through the “First Thanksgiving” harvest festival of November 1621), Good Newes reads more like travel writing, describing the settings and worlds of New England at least as much as it does the experiences and lives of the Pilgrims.
It’s tricky to call a work travel writing when it serves so blatantly as propaganda on behalf of colonization efforts, though. Much of the tradition of English-language travel writing (and perhaps others, but it’s English with which I’m most familiar) was of course connected to colonies, as illustrated by the extensive travel literature (some of it contemporaneous to Winslow’s book) of Englishmen and women traveling to India. But Winslow isn’t just portraying the experience of moving to or living in this colonial setting—he is, as the title’s Good Newes suggests, overtly trying to sell that setting for continued and amplified colonization. As a result, he’s not quite writing about an unfamiliar world for an outsider audience (as is often the case with travel literature), but working to convince his audiences that they should become insiders to this newly colonized New England world. That central goal links Winslow’s text to one of first and most famous European descriptions of the New World, Christopher Columbus’ in his 1493 letter to Luis de Santangel. While Winslow isn’t quite as hyperbolic (nor quite as overtly exclusionary) as Columbus, he is similarly less interested in detailed descriptions and more focused on making New England as desirable as possible for his English readers.
Yet works can be multiple things at once, and I would argue that there are still elements to Winslow’s influential book that can and should be defined as travel writing. The presence of that genre alongside propaganda is illustrated concisely by the second and third sub-topics listed in Winslow’s typically extended full title: “Together with a Relation of such religious and civil Laws and Customs, as are in practice amongst the Indians, adjoining to them at this day. As also what Commodities are there to be raised for the maintenance of that and other Plantations in the said Country.” Columbus focused entirely on such commodities, so much so that he treated the indigenous peoples as literally inconsequential to his letter and colonizing perspective. Winslow certainly does not want to present the Native Americans as an impediment to further English colonization, but at the same time he does recognize their status as distinct communities, and honors this part of the book’s title by paying extended attention to their communal identities in his course of his work. That attention makes Winslow’s book an important early Anglo American text, and one that offers the kinds of glimpses into a specific local world—shaped by the author’s cultural perspective to be sure—that are one of the hallmarks of travel writing.
Next travel writing tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other travel writing you’d highlight?
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