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Thursday, February 2, 2023

February 2, 2023: Travel Stories: The Boston Cosmopolitans

[January 30th marks the 150th anniversary of the English-language publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that book and other travel stories!]

On two positive effects of an elite community’s international travels.

I’ve written a couple times in this space about my undergraduate senior thesis advisor Mark Rennella and his first book, The Boston Cosmopolitans: International Travel and American Arts and Letters, 1865-1915 (2008). A central goal of Mark’s in that project, as I wrote about in the first hyperlinked post above, was to reclaim the late 19th century figures known as the Boston Cosmopolitans from critiques of them as elitist and out of touch, as emblematic of the Gilded Age’s worst excesses and inequalities. Certainly their propensity for the international travel highlighted in Mark’s subtitle could be seen as exemplifying those latter trends, given how rare it was for most Americans in the era to have the chance to travel abroad (obviously lots of Americans arrived from abroad in the era, but that’s a very different kind of journey, and of course generally took place in very different travel conditions as well). But while the ability to travel abroad might indeed reflect positions of privilege, the experiences and effects of that international travel could nonetheless be positive ones for not only these travelers but American communities and histories overall. Mark makes that case convincingly throughout his book; here I’ll highlight two such positive effects.

For one thing, their encounters with international settings allowed these travelers to think about, and at times critique, American culture and society from new angles. Two particularly famous examples of this are Henry Adams’s chapter “The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)” in his autobiography The Education of Henry Adams (1907); and the entirety of Henry James’s travel book The American Scene (1907), written upon the occasion of James’s 1904-5 return to the U.S. after nearly three decades living in Europe. But no single moment better reflects this contrast in settings and perspectives, and the opportunities for it provided by international travel, than Harvard Professor and social reformer Charles Eliot Norton’s encounter with Ralph Waldo Emerson on an 1873 steamship voyage from England to the US. As Norton described their conversations in a letter to a friend, Emerson at this late point in his life (he was 70 at the time, while Norton was 45) maintained his “inveterate and persistent optimism,” an element of his distinctly American Transcendental philosophy. Whereas Norton, inspired at least in part by his encounters with European cultures and histories, argued that such optimism “is dangerous doctrine for a people,” as it is “at the root of … much of our unwillingness to accept hard truths.”

These international travelers didn’t just gain new perspectives on American identities and philosophies, however; they also influenced and changed American society through what they brought back with them. The most striking example of such effects was offered by my favorite Boston Cosmopolitan, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose entire Gardner Museum could be accurately described as an American construction assembled out of and atop European and international foundations and intended to allow many fellow Americans to experience those cross-cultural influences as well. But while art and culture were certainly prominent areas where the Cosmopolitans brought their international influences back to the US, they likewise did so in more directly activist arenas, as illustrated by such fellow Gilded Age New Englanders as Edward Bellamy (for whom a year in Hawaii in his late 20s influenced his developing socialist ideas) and Richard Henry Dana III (whose Massachusetts political reforms were inspired in part by European practices). In these and other ways, the evolution of Massachusetts and America in this period was importantly affected by the experiences and lessons of these cosmopolitan travelers.

Last travel story tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Travel stories or writing you’d highlight?

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