Tales of travel published in American books and magazines were entertaining before they were informative. They featured the thrill of the distant, the adventurous, the foreign, the exotic, the perilous. Wonders of a world once beyond the imagination of American readers were placed within their “knowledge.” Travel narratives were that much more compelling than fiction because they opened windows not into fantastic imaginary worlds, but into the fabulous real world.
Even as they delighted audiences with thrilling adventures undertaken by fellow Americans across the North American west and around the world, travel narratives also provided lessons, sometimes sobering, sometimes inspiring. Relics of ancient indigenous civilizations warned of cultural decline. The cruising of American ships on every ocean promised national greatness. In a world full of precipitous falls and crushing stagnations, the United States was by contrast presented as on a limitless rise.
The reading public encountered not only distant places and foreign peoples in travel narratives, but also Americans who had ventured out into the world. The globalization of the United States amounted to little more than the Americanization of the globe. As American mariners, traders, missionaries, navy personnel, scientists, and eventually moneyed tourists came to tarry in every corner of the world, Americans increasingly appeared alongside foreigners as characters in travel narratives. Whereas popular geography books removed Americans from their portrait of the world, positioning readers as detached observers of the foreign, popular travel narratives placed Americans within the frame and positioned readers as eyewitnesses immersed in the foreign.
Just as with popular geography books, the prevailing message of popular travel narratives was to elevate “European” culture above all other cultures in a world. Only “Europeans” — the category included citizens of the United States — were thought capable of bridging global distances putting themselves in the privileged position of observing as well as appraising foreign places and peoples.
It was the rare American who did not feel confirmed in their superiority when reading travel narratives. The exception to this ethnocentrism was the special status increasingly accorded Britain as Americans forgave the British their past trespasses, and embraced a shared “Anglo-Saxon” sensibility carried around the world. Americans expressed greatest comfort whenever encountering, besides their fellow Americans, Britons in imperial enclaves throughout the world.
The globalization of the United States across the first half of the nineteenth century did not mean global interconnection so much as it meant imperial Anglo-Saxon reach in the world.  Various middle-class white Americans formulated global ambitions, cultivated global knowledge, and pursued global enterprises, but they saw such capacities as the exclusive domain of Britain and the United States. They certainly reached around the world, but they did not really comprehend it, or notice what peoples other than Europeans and themselves might have been doing.
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Samuel Patterson. Narrative of the Adventures and Sufferings of Samuel Patterson, Experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and Many Other Parts of the World, with an Account of the Feegee, and Sandwich Islands. Palmer: From the press in Palmer, 1817.A sailor having spent six years circumnavigating the world, Patterson came home with reinforced contempt for the sundry “uncivilized” peoples inhabiting that world.
Jared Sparks. The Life of John Ledyard, the American Traveller; Comprising Selections from his Journals and Correspondence. Cambridge: Published by Hilliard and Brown; Boston: and by Hilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins: and Richardson and Lord; New York: G. and C. Carvill; Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Carey, 1828.Sparks presented Ledyard as an American pioneer who traveled not westward across the continent, but eastward to Europe, Asia, and Africa.
The Mariner’s Library or Voyager’s Companion. Containing Narratives of the Most Popular Voyages, from the Time of Columbus to the Present Day.... Boston: Lilly, Wait, Colman and Holden, 1833.The most harrowing story in this anecdotal account of life at sea dwelled on the cruelty of whale hunting; by the 1820s American whale hunters were blanketing the Pacific Ocean.
Paul Cuffe. Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Paul Cuffe, a Pequot Indian: During Thirty Years Spent at Sea, and in Travelling in Foreign Lands. Vernon: Printed by Horace N. Bill, 1839.As a “Pequot Indian,” Cuffe narrated the rare perspective of a Native American whose shipping business — and whale hunting — propelled him across the oceanic world far from his New England home.
John L. Stephens. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. New York: Harper and Brother, 1843.Stephens entertained readers with stories of massive water wells deep below the earth’s surface, while touring them through newly discovered ruins of great cities in Central America.
Thomas Jefferson Jacobs. Scenes, Incidents, and Adventures in the Pacific Ocean, or, the Islands of the Australasian Seas, During the Cruise of the Clipper Margaret Oakley, under Capt. Benjamin Morrell. New-York: Harper and Brothers, 1844.Depicting himself in an exciting theater of discovery in the Pacific, Jacobs condemned the “natives” — as in this hostile encounter — while admiring the natural beauty of the islands.
George Little. Life on the Ocean; or Twenty Years at Sea: Being the Personal Adventures of the Author. Boston: Waite, Peirce and Company, 1846.Little cautioned his fellow American sailors to behave like a proper “representative of his countrymen” whenever encountering the “uncivilized portions of mankind.”
Joel Palmer. Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains, to the Mouth of the Columbia River; Made During the Years 1845 and 1846.... Cincinnati: J.A. and U.P. James, 1847.By the 1840s, the “west” had shifted from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Coast as Palmer touted the potential of Oregon to become a “second North American Republic.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company; New York: J.C. Derby, 1854.Feted as an abolitionist celebrity during a tour of Britain and the European continent, Stowe contributed to a shift from Anglophobia to Anglophilia in American culture.
Caroline Paine. Tent and Harem: Notes of an Oriental Trip. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1859.A wealthy tourist exploiting the service economy abroad, Paine limned her travels in the Middle East with maximum exotic effect.
Charles W. Thomas. Adventures and Observations on the West Coast of Africa, and its Islands. New York: Derby and Jackson, 1860.Thomas was an unusual author in openly expressing humility before the difficulties of firsthand observation and comprehension during his travels on the west African coast.