Incidental Americans: Encounter and self-construction in nineteenth-century transatlantic travel narratives
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This dissertation takes travel as a rubric for encounter, using 19 th -century travel texts by Americans abroad to examine the strategic usefulness of the touristic contact zone. Though invested in sameness as a sign of common humanity, the American travelers of the era eagerly sought the difference foreign encounter could provide. Seemingly insignificant interpersonal encounters enabled the performance, both repeated and revised, of gender, whiteness, and Americanness. The clear usefulness of these "incidental" moments of travel complicates these texts whose rhetoric is buoyed by nationalistic swagger and invested with millennial certainty—at heart, such avowals of exceptionalism themselves remain utterly reliant on the foreign. America, for even its most fervent authors and citizens, cannot make meaning alone. As the nineteenth-century travel narrative makes clear, superiority is available only through contrast; home is best seen from a yearning, distant shore. Indeed, home comes into focus as the central, if veiled, concern of the transatlantic travel narrative. The first chapter of this dissertation examines Catharine Maria Sedgwick's insistence on right feeling and relation—on sympathy—as a way of universalizing home, noting both the rewards of such aspirational intimacy and the ease with which sentiment can become narcissistic, its rhetoric deflecting rather than participating in another's pain. The second chapter reads John Lloyd Stephens's genial records of cultural destruction, both transatlantic and South American, focusing particularly on the productive friction of sexualized otherness provided by the dark bodies that surround him and which create, by contrast, a white, homosocial brotherhood. Similarly, it examines his strategic elision of the disposable native laborers that surround him in his bid to claim the cultural treasure of the Mayas as "American" and thus his own. The third chapter follows David Dorr, a slave writing in audacious "whiteface," using a European backdrop to dissolve his master's claims of ownership and posit himself as both American and independent gentleman. Chapter four examines the way Mark Twain, in texts that span thirty years and move from the aggressive frolic of imperial play to a fractured critique of imperial violence, repeatedly uses the foreign as a springboard back to American geography and, more tellingly, the national wounds of America's violent racial past, which he compulsively revisits and revises. Read together, these narratives posit transatlantic travel as more than mere amusement; instead, the moments of contact facilitated by travel's purposeful displacement serve both to extend already formed identities and to shape and inflect developing ones. This visible construction reminds readers of the tenuous, shifting nature of such identities, of the foreign inevitably embedded in the self.