Building an Interpretation of the World: Mary Louise Pratt and the Dangers of Travel Writing

Sophomore Mark Neuhengen returns with another post about his project to study travel literature in the original St. Ignatius College Library catalog. Here he reflects on how the work of a leading scholar of travel literature, Mary Louise Pratt, helps him think about the issues around his own research topic.


One of Bayard Taylor’s many titles in the original library collection of St. Ignatius College.

When I first starting looking at the St. Ignatius College’s collection of travel literature, I felt that I proved J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic words, “Not all those who wander are lost,” wrong. Wandering through titles ranging from Washington Irving’s The Adventures of Capt. Bonneville, U.S.A. in the Rocky Mountains and the Far West to Bayard Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in 1874, I felt that I was very much lost. Travel literature seemed such a diverse and expansive genre to the point where any book with a character on a journey could qualify! This overwhelming feeling was quickly allayed after reading the brilliantly written Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation by Mary Louise Pratt.

Throughout her book, Pratt explores how the writings of European explorers created an image of foreign lands that shaped the popular imagination. Pratt’s book is divided by era into three parts. She begins by analyzing scientists who worked between 1750 and 1800. Where previous generations had focused on oceanic exploration in their efforts at circumnavigation of the earth, this new group shifted their attention to interior exploration and laid the foundation for the modern travel literature movement. In the second part, Pratt discusses explorers in the first half of the 19th century who increasingly popularized a new planetary consciousness that reinvented whole regions of the globe, but typically on European terms. She concludes her book by investigating 20th century travel literature and the tropes they utilized. Since the books contained in the St. Ignatius College library were published prior to the 20th century, the first two parts of Pratt’s book were the most useful.

The work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) inspired generations of scientists to explore the world.

The work of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) inspired generations of scientists to explore the world. Source: Wikimedia.

Pratt begins with Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), who the reader might remember from biology class as the scientist who developed an expansive classification system for all living organisms (Homo Sapiens, Bradypus variegatus, Solanum tuberosum). His system, laid out in Systema Naturae (1735), inspired many scientists to set out to categorize the world. These scientists traveled the globe and wrote about the places and things they saw albeit in a scientific context. In other words, the work of these scientists contained descriptions of locations and people, but these descriptions were told in a highly scientific manner. This work, however, created lasting problems. Linnaeus’ students categorized not only beavers and pine trees, but also decided to “categorize” different groups of humans! The categorization charts of these scientists reveal their Eurocentric prejudice: they proclaim the White European governed by laws as the pinnacle of the human species. Encountering and observing people of other races and ethnicities, they assumed them to be driven by emotions or customs instead of law, placing them below the European ideal. While it is easy for people today to look back upon these scientists and condemn them for their bigotry, I believe it is important to take note of their historical context. Being trained in the sciences, these explorers were taught to look at their environments as categories. One should also their note the cultural context in which they were taught. In their post-Enlightenment world, these scientists saw their society as governed by laws, but the people they encountered in other parts of the world had not experienced the same burst of philosophical thought, and subsequently were not seen as governed by the same laws. These writers were not able to move away from their historical context, and subsequently created a hierarchy of humanity.

It would make sense for a scientific endeavor to kick off the age of travel literature. The scientific drive to understand and explain the natural world would be the perfect catalyst to set off this new “Age of Exploration.” Due to the Scientific Revolution, science was becoming a force of change. The racial problems created by Linnaeus’ work bring up an important point that has implications in many fields of study. It is disturbing that the “objective” system of science pushed individuals to create something, in hindsight, as subjective as a racial hierarchy. I find it important to consider that science is another tool of fallible humans that subsequently makes science vulnerable to grievous error. This error subsequently affected the travel literature of later time periods by creating the racial hierarchies mentioned earlier. With the supposedly objective system of science backing them up, future explorers would travel to new places with the idea of superiority already engrained into their thinking. I believe that this potentially created a vicious cycle in which new explorers reiterated the racial hierarchies to their audiences.

An example of the "objective" classification systems designed by scientists inspired by Linnaeus. Source:

An example of the “objective” classification systems designed by scientists inspired by Linnaeus. Source: William & Mary University, Institute for Historical Biology

Alexander von Humboldt was one of the 19th century's most popular travel writers. Source: Wikimedia.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the 19th century’s most popular travel writers. Source: Wikimedia.

I find the phenomena of the travel literature creating the image of foreign lands in the minds of native-born Europeans to be fascinating. In a world without extensive media, it is almost mind blowing to consider that these travel books would be the only exposure to these lands that Europeans would experience. In the contemporary period, if one wanted to learn about the Great Pyramids of Giza one could easily find thousands of online articles and photographs. This is not a privilege shared by those in the 19th century who would have to wait for a travel writer to write a book on the pyramids. Pratt explores the very real consequences of explorers’ framing lands in specific ways. For example, the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) traveled extensively throughout Latin America and subsequently wrote about his journeys. It is important to note that Humboldt was working within the Romantic era, which emphasized the emotional aspects of existence. This and other reasons influenced his decision to describe Latin America as “primal.” While Humboldt extensively described the minerals, plants, and trees, he barely mentioned the inhabitants of the land. As a result, he opened the door for two general categories of explorers. One was the romantic explorer who traveled there for more or less sentimental reasons to experience the destinations in all of their “primal” glory and majesty. The other was the capitalist who saw every tree and mineral as product to extract and sell. Thus, these images of the world could be disastrous in the hands of tourists and capitalists who knew Latin America only as a land of valuable minerals instead of a land of diverse and beautiful cultures.

Everyone believes that his or her interpretation of the world is the correct one. European explorers ended up creating an image of the world, while true in their eyes, which did not reflect the actual reality of the lands they visited for the people who lived there. It is also fascinating that the images constructed by the explorers, many of which revolved around racial stereotypes, end up contradicting themselves. Pratt explores how Mary Kingsley portrayed the Congo as a place of wonder and excitement. “Kingsley depicts herself discovering her swamps not by looking down at them or even walking around them, but by sloshing zestfully through them in a boat or up to her neck in water and slime, swathed in thick skirts and wearing her boots continuously for weeks on end,” Pratt writes (p.209). But such an image of the Congo does not mesh well with Joseph Conrad’s description of the Congo as a dangerous and harsh environment in The Heart of Darkness.

A final point to notice in Pratt’s work is that there were female explorers in this time period. When one thinks of historic explorers he or she probably is reminded of famous names such as Christopher Columbus and Francisco Pizzaro. These explorers are typically male. One can also look at popular fictional explorers, such as Indiana Jones, and again see the archetype of the male explorer. While this image still is powerful in the popular imagination, it is important to note that there were also female explorers. English traveller Maria Graham (1785-1842) wrote extensively about her travels through South America and the Indian subcontinent, and the half-Peruvian Flora Tristan (1803-1844) wrote about Peru and poor areas of Europe. Pratt explains how the viewpoints of female travellers differed from their male counterparts, but does not believe that there was generally a single “feminine” perspective in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel literature. Through learning about these female explorers, my original hypothesis, that women were not traveling, was proved false. I had based this upon my first examination of the library’s catalog. While the St. Ignatius College library did not feature travel books written by female authors, there were women writing about their travels during the same time period. So why are female travel writers not to be found in this Jesuit college library? This question requires further research.

Following my reading of this book, I will now be going through the titles book by book so that I can categorize them by the period in which they were written, their date of publishing, and the motivation of the author for travelling (such as going on a pilgrimage, scientific exploration, or commercial mission). Finding the motivation of the author may be the most daunting aspect because nearly a third of the titles are in French, a language in which I am not fluent. While the language barrier may be difficult, I never let anything get in the way of learning something new.

It seems that I am not wandering and lost any more! Through reading Pratt’s book, I have learned much about the nature of modern travel literature and its historical roots. By exploring how the predominantly white, male Europeans ended up developing the image of foreign lands in the minds of their fellow Europeans, I believe that I have come to appreciate the real consequences books can have. What might this have meant for the Jesuits of St. Ignatius College who were educating their students in a rapidly growing city full of immigrants. It would be important for them to create a strong identity for the students in relationship to other groups in the world. What effect did the travel literature in the St. Ignatius College library have on this process of identity formation? Moving forward I am excited to look at each book and learn why the author decided put his pen to paper – and what the repercussions of that might be for his audience on the west side of Chicago in the late nineteenth century.


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