A Utopian Vision for Travel Writing

I question whether Martineau reaches her own lofty goal of objective observation in her travelogue, Society in America. In How to Observe Morals and Manners, Martineau aims to make would-be travel writers aware of the intellectual and moral training they need to record valuable observations about the people of other nations. To avoid hasty generalizations, her solution is for each traveller to withhold judgments, except for certain “safe means of generalization within the reach of all,” by which writers can “[inspire] men with that spirit of impartiality, mutual deference, and love” (9, 11).

Martineau’s descriptions of how to accomplish this are not always “safe” from prejudice and hasty generalization. Take just one instance, when she describes a who views the whole earth in contemplation. If one takes Martineau’s description at face value, the philosopher actually sees a grouping of grossly generalized stereotypes of the world’s peoples (How to Observe 17). The contradiction between her instruction and her attitude, already present in the treatise, becomes apparent in her own travelogue. In How to Observe, she states that travellers must interact with all levels of American society. From the parts of Society in America that I read, she references interacting with factory managers and with upper class individuals, but what about factory workers and slaves themselves?

It’s helpful here to compare Martineau’s theory of observing human “manners and morals” to her theory of social progress. Both theories are utopian visions—and therefore unachievable. A society’s view of “progress” is one of the main criteria that Martineau aims to judge as a travel writer. In her view, progress consists of equality among men and widespread, state-instituted charity. She envisions a world in which “the whole race could live as brethren” (How to Observe 124). She fiercely demands objectivity in the sphere of observation and a universal “fraternal spirit” in the sphere of social progress.

I’m especially interested in her focus on the “dignity of labor” as the central prerequisite for progress—a view that’s either socialist or democratic, depending on how you spin it, but a prejudice nonetheless toward a certain kind of society. And a utopian one, at that—Listen to this:

There is no drowning the epithalamium with which these two classes celebrate the union of thought and handicraft. Multitudes press in…to the marriage feast, and a new era of society has begun. The temporary glory of ease and disgrace of labour pass away like mountain mists, and the clear sublimity of toil grows upon men’s sight. (Society 2.2.5)

Because of this slant, her moral observation about America is rather simplistic: the North has a good view of labor and is therefore happily progressing, while the South has a bad view of labor and is therefore miserable. I’m not saying that she is entirely wrong—it’s a helpful angle and has truth to it, especially considering slavery—but it is based on hasty generalizations about people’s happiness.

My point is that, just as Martineau’s utopian fancies about society are unattainable, neither can human observation help usher in a future of worldwide fraternity and charity. The most one can hope for is improvement; Martineau’s mistake is to expect eventual perfection. As a result, her work—both treatise and travelogue—exposes a large gap between theory and practice.

That’s not to say that her observations are of no account: Martineau is one of those partially competent observers described in the introduction to How to Observe. But it is only in combination with other perspectives on America that Society in America moves us toward an accurate view.



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