Martineau’s “Authorial Spectacles”

WHAT is the difference between a travel writer and a philosophical observer? Martineau would doubtless answer that there is no difference, yet in her autobiography, she describes periods where she traveled without her “authorial spectacles.”

Obviously, Martineau’s How to Observe Morals and Manners argues that flippant judgments based on prejudiced morals and hasty generalization should be tempered by philosophical preparation. That is, bad reporters should consider that they don’t really understand even their own home town. Hence, an “unprepared” traveler, is contrasted to a “philosophical” one – one who judges not by their own specific morals and manners, but by universal ones. Martineau laments that the current travel writers are generally unprepared, and urges them to be more philosophical observers.  So much is nice and clear.

But in her biography, she notes that when she went travelling, she meant to leave her pen behind her. She claims to travel for “rest and recreation” and not to write.  She then asserts, “I am sure that no traveler seeing things through author spectacles, can see them as they are.” But is not the authorial gaze and philosophical observation basically the same thing?  Martineau thinks not.  And so I ask, what is the difference?

It would seem that the difference is partly in the order.  Philosophizing comes before travel.  It consists in (very simplistically) discovering what the universal morals are, and then in acknowledging that manners are changing symbols.  In Martineau’s own travels, she began writing this opinion on the ship to America, so just as she urges for her reader, a philosophical distance from her own culture was a necessary prerequisite.

The observation part is apparently what Martineau considers “rest[ful] and relax[ing].”  She did not stop observing the world, only writing books abotu it. This apparently means not judging the cultures she visited, but it does not mean that she did not hold opinions about their ideas.  In her autobiography, she notes that  “my opinions on slavery were candidly held, and … they offered no obstacle to the most friendly intercourse with friends.” I assume from context that the term “candid” is meant in the older connotation of a kindly, nonabrasive,  honesty.  In fact, this kind of candor about her opinions seems to have added to the enjoyment.  Her next statement implies too, that observation is another element of that enjoyment. “I should never succeed in seeing the Americans as they were, if my road was paved for me from one society to another.”  Though it is difficult for the modern culture of cruise vacations and beach resorts to understand, Martineau wanted the challenge, and wanted to study another culture – that was the fun of it.

The authorial gaze comes after the return from the trip and seems to produce the judging voice.   Martineau’s Society in America, though nicely tempered, certainly holds no punches in its condemnation of the slave trade (and more). In her introduction, she claims not to judge the American people and she urges other travel writers to do the same.  This must mean something other than judging actions and opinions, however, for list of anecdotes describing the deadened sensibilities of Southern culture toward the slave trade is not sparing. Her voice in this travel narrative returns to the philosophical and the critical, however kind and liberal that ultimate critique of the society might be.  She is shocked at the inconsistencies in their thinking even though she noted how difficult it is to see one’s own culture clearly, quipping that such observations “reveal more of the mind of the observer than the observed.”  But it is interesting that Martineau’s own observations do reveal a great deal of her own mind. Perhaps, though the division between observation and critique is necessary for both to be done well, that distinction is easier in theory than in practice.

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