On what a unique American travel narrative helps us understand about the early 18th century.
If you haven’t taken an Early American Literature class or otherwise looked through an American Lit anthology, I’m not sure how likely you are to have heard of Sarah Kemble Knight and her five-month journey from Boston to New York in 1704-1705. Because there are so few extant literary works (in any genre) from that particular colonial period, Knight’s diary (or journal; it was private and unpublished in her lifetime but rediscovered by New England luminary Theodore Dwight and released in 1825 as The Journal of Mme Knight) of her journey is frequently anthologized and taught (either in excerpts or in full), but I don’t know how well-known it is beyond such textbooks and classrooms. Which is a shame—partly because Knight, a widow who had begun running a Boston boarding house after her husband’s death in 1703, was clearly a unique and interesting woman, with a sharp and funny voice and perspective that translate well to the pages of her journal; but also because this unusual piece of early American travel writing reveals a good deal about life in New England and America in the first decade of the 18th century.
Some of those revelations are seemingly straightforward but difficult to wrap our 21st century heads around without the aid of texts like Knight’s. That’s especially true of the single most striking detail about Knight’s journey: that it took her and her guide five months to travel the 220 miles from Boston to New York. They weren’t riding as if the devil were at their heels or anything, but that stunningly extended length of time does reflect a number of significant realities of early 18th century travel and America. There’s the poor condition of even those few roads (like the Boston Post Road that was Knight’s first thoroughfare) that did exist in the era; as Knight writes of one such experience, “the Roads all along this way are very bad, Encumbered with Rocks and mountainous passages, which were very disagreeable to my tired carcass.” Or the very real dangers of crossing rivers during the period, whether on a ferry as she does the Thames River (“the Boat tossed exceedingly, and our horses capered at a very surprising Rate, and set us all in a fright”) or over a bridge as she does in Dedham (“But in going over the Causeway at Dedham the Bridge being overflowed by the high waters coming down I very narrowly escaped falling over into the river Horse and all which ‘twas almost a miracle I did not”). The incredible challenges of Knight’s trek make rush hour traffic on the Merritt Parkway seem like nothing at all, no?
Knight’s journal also reveals a good bit about the society and communities through which that five-month journey takes her. On a number of occasions Knight is met with incredulity that she is a single woman taking such a journey alone, as when she writes, “I was Interrogated by a young Lady I understood afterwards was the Eldest daughter of the family [with whom she is staying], with these, or words to this purpose: what in the world brings You here at this time a night?—I never see a woman on the Road so Dreadful late, in all the days of my versall [?] life. Who are You? Where are You going?” Knight also offers her own observations on the social worlds around her, and that progressive gender identity does not free her from such stereotyping descriptions as this of Native Americans she encounters: “There are every where in the Towns as I passed, a Number of Indians the Natives of the Country, and are the most savage of all the savages of that kind that I had ever Seen.” She does add, however, that there has been “little or no care taken (as I heard upon enquiry) to make them otherwise,” making clear that these American identities are a product of collective bigotry at least as much as they are a reflection of Knight’s own prejudices. Just a couple of the early 18th century realities and histories that we can glimpse in this unique piece of colonial travel writing.
Next travel story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Travel stories or writing you’d highlight?