Connecticut-born John Ledyard had only one book published in his lifetime, but one could say he made the most of his opportunity.
On July 12, 1776, Ledyard set out from Plymouth, England, with Captain James Cook, the famous British explorer, on a voyage to find the fabled North-West Passage. One of a crew of 112 aboard Cook's ship, the Resolution, Ledyard thus began a three-year adventure that would take him to points throughout the Pacific, as far south as Australia and all the way up to Alaska. It was during this journey, Cook's third, that he discovered the Hawaiian Islands and debunked the reality of a North-West Passage. The historical importance of this expedition was magnified when, on a return stay in Hawaii in February of 1779, Cook was killed after a dispute with a group of natives.
Ledyard went on to chronicle his eyewitness account of this excursion in an authoritative work titled A Journal Of Captain Cook's Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean and In Quest of a North-West Passage. Published in 1783, the book was immensely popular and presented the author with instant fame.
What makes Ledyard's Journal even more significant is that he was granted sole printing rights for the book, unheard of at the time, consequently pioneering copyright laws in America. The tome also lays claim to being the first American travel book.
Ledyard, who died in Egypt in 1789 while planning a hike through Africa, is the first port of call for Larzer Ziff, a research professor in the English Department of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, in his new book, Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780-1910 (Yale University Press; $29.95).
A work of literary criticism, the book traces the history of distinguished travel writing by focusing on the lives and works of Ledyard, John Lloyd Stephens, Bayard Taylor, Mark Twain and Henry James. Ziff dedicates a chapter to each, sprinkling in other notable travel writers who published from the end of the American Revolution to the beginning of World War I.
The result is a very compact but detailed look into travel literature that is garnering some rather favorable reviews. Michael Gorra in his review of Return Passages in The New York Times Book Review writes, "In the lucidity of his prose and the skill with which he handles his narrative, [Ziff] seems something like an ungrouchy Edmund Wilson. No work of criticism I've read in recent years has offered such a combination of instruction and delight."
Kirkus Reviews calls it "a deeply intelligent, chin-in-hand rumination on the nature of American travel-writing. ... Written in a velvety professional voice, these excellent vignettes of five exemplary travelers provide a steady pulse of context and critique, amply demonstrating how travel literature helped shape a national identity."
Ziff, the author of five previous books on American literary history, says it was his intention to reach out beyond an academic audience with Return Passages.
"I'd like to believe that a great deal of what excites me can be made accessible to other people, and should be made accessible to other people, without any sacrifice of scholarship," says Ziff, the Caroline Donovan Professor Emeritus of English Literature. "I was just glad when the whole thing cohered."
Many of the travel narratives Ziff combs through in Return Passages are those he came across while researching his other books. Yet, to a great extent, Ziff says these works never made the final cut.
"I finally decided about three or four years ago that they were a book in themselves," Ziff says. "So rather than going on and have them fall out of whatever project I was working on, I thought I had all this material, and I really should concentrate on this."
Setting out to do a history of "everybody," Ziff says he pored through mounds of travel writing. However, it wasn't until completing the narrative on John Ledyard that Ziff "really knew" where his latest book was headed. From Ledyard, Ziff says, everything seemed to fall into place.
"Eventually, what I found out was that if I dealt with these five figures, I was telling the whole story, and I had to resist my desire to write about everybody else simply because I read them," Ziff says. "Like all writers, especially historians, I have a really nice big file of stuff I didn't include."
Ziff follows Ledyard with another adventurer/explorer type, John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52). Stephens, recognized as the father of Maya archaeology, is perhaps best known for his accounts of his two expeditions to the Yucatan and Central America, journeys where he uncovered hundreds of ruins. Although relatively unknown today, Stephens' books in his day were best sellers and lauded by critics, Ziff says. In fact, Edgar Allan Poe called him the greatest travel writer ever, a title to which Ziff says Stephens can still lay claim.
"Stephens' books are still arguably the greatest travel books ever written by an American," Ziff says.
What Ziff admires most about Stephens' writing is his ability to progress through a landscape--whether it be Mexico, Egypt or Greece--without removing himself from the narrative and compartmentalizing the things he sees.
"He doesn't stop to give you a potted history, such as 'Here I am in Greece. Now we all remember in recent years that Greece had this war,' and so on and so forth," Ziff says. "As he moves through the landscape and talks to people, his life and the life of the place interact and become one."
Whereas Ledyard and Stephens were explorers, the other three of Ziff's subjects treated travel writing as a profession, the innovator of which was Bayard Taylor.
Taylor (1825-78) traveled to Europe, Africa, India and the Arctic Circle solely for the purpose of producing books about these journeys. Among his many travels, Taylor got to see the Sahara by camel caravan, Lapland from a reindeer sleigh and India from a banghy cart. Ziff says it was Taylor who made traveling plausible for those of modest means.
"He pioneered Europe on $10," Ziff says. "He showed you how to do it."
Travel writing emerged as art, Ziff says, with Henry James, who wrote cosmopolitan portrayals of European sites and societies.
Ziff, who came to Johns Hopkins 20 years ago to teach American literature, views travel literature as not only a means to chronicle a time and place but an opportunity to examine one's own culture.
In the book's introduction, Ziff writes, "The power of great travel writing resides as well in the author's capacity to present his heightened self-awareness in a manner that serves to move readers to question the unexamined familiarities of their own lives."
Mark Twain's Following the Equator is one example of this, and a work that Ziff found both "deeply moving and impressive."
Compelled to travel around the world to earn money, the 60-year-old demoralized and bankrupt Twain set out to tour such locales as Australia, Africa and Ceylon. Critically speaking, Following the Equator, published in 1897, is a masterwork of the genre, but what stands out, according to Ziff, is Twain's combined nostalgia and love for people of color that exudes from the pages.
"Here is a guy who made fun of American Indians in his earlier books, and in his first travel book treated 'Arabs' as loathful, dirty and disgusting," Ziff says. "This wasn't just a matter of political incorrectness; it was plain prejudice." Following the Equator, Ziff says, marked a startling transcendence for the famed author.
As for his own travels, Ziff says he keeps a diary to remember people and events but says the pages are not likely to see the light of day.
"I could never be a travel writer. I look at my diary and couldn't in my wildest imagination find anything anybody would want to read," Ziff says.