Sunday, December 28, 2008

Retrospect of Western Travel / Harriet Martineau -- Daniel Feller, ed. -- Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

I first heard of Harriet Martineau when reading Arthur Schlesinger's The Age of Jackson. Martineau was a British women who traveled to the United States from 1834, returning to England in 1836. After her return she wrote two three volume works describing the United States. The first, Society in America is an ambitious examination of how well the U.S. lived up to democratic, egalitarian principles. The second, Retrospect of Western Travel, provides a more direct report of her experiences. Daniel Feller's edition of Western Travel is an abridgment, presenting what Feller judges to be the more interesting sections.

At first, I had some difficulty with Martineau's style, but in time, her prose read easily and I became engrossed in her descriptions of social encounters, prison condition, stage coach rides, hotels, river boats, and public meetings as she traveled in New York, D.C., Virginia, Charleston, New Orleans Cincinati, Boston, and parts between. Martineau was well enough known as an author to be able to visit and speak with a number of important figures of the time, including James Madison, Henry Clay, and William Lloyd Garrison.

Prior to coming to the United States, Martineau had published criticisms of slavery. Consequently, she was engaged in frequent discussions about the issue. Her initial revulsion to seeing people enslaved made for interesting reading; however, her hosts in the South were invariably slave owners and she developed a personal appreciation for their hospitality. As she was critical of colonization which was the more acceptable path to ending slavery, she often found herself acknowledging her sympathies to abolition. Curiously, this put her in the most danger in Boston, where the high society was at pains to mollify Southern sensibilities by villifying Abolitionists. Indeed, her work is most informative as to how Abolitionists were repressed and, indeed, persecuted during these years.


  1. Harriet Martineau-hooray! Sociologists increasingly claim her (usually in the last chapter of their theory books, the one entitled "women" or "feminist) as part of their lineage. I've read small bits, but will now pick her up. Speaking of theory though, have you read any Thomas Paine? I think I need to pick him up as well.

  2. I'm embarassed to say that I haven't read Paine. More embarassed to say that I haven't read Tocqueville.