Antebellum Writer-Travelers and American Cosmopolitanism
James Fenimore Cooper, George Catlin, and Margaret Fuller all spent significant portions of their lives living outside the United States, among people who - at least initially - were foreign to them. The writing those cross-cultural forays inspired demonstrated that they learned a great deal about American culture in addition to the foreign cultures they visited, and that sometimes the insights gained were difficult to hear but impossible to refute. These writers became advocates for a cosmopolitan approach not only to travel but also to cultural identity. Each felt the slipperiness of U.S. cultural identity and determined that the most productive means of securing it was by active cosmopolitan engagement with foreign others. This project explores how travel led them to view culture as a moveable category, and as a result, to work proactively to encourage a culture of patriotic cosmopolitanism in the United States. While Fuller, Cooper, and Catlin lived and wrote, the United States was marked by an isolating insistence on exceptionalism that dominated American culture. Calls for transformative, active, or personal engagement with foreign cultures were rare. Juxtaposing Appiah's approach to cosmopolitanism with the cultural analysis of such critics as William W. Stowe and Mark Renella on travel and nineteenth-century American culture, and Larry J. Reynolds and Michael Paul Rogin, on political issues of the same era gives a new perspective to these writers. Catlin, Cooper, and Fuller were dissimilar in many ways, but all enacted a cosmopolitanism that was unusual for their time and striking in its opposition to nationalist cultural currents. Their careers were defined by travel experiences marked by challenges to their cultural identity, and they met these with self-reflection that led to their awareness of the treatment cultural others received from Americans. Engaging with both Amerindian and European versions of "foreignness" led these writers to preach a cosmopolitan consciousness and to model the best ways for Americans to comport themselves while acting as citizen diplomats. A close reading of Catlin's presence as cultural intermediary in his ethnography reveals a man seeking to meet Amerindians on their own terms; he was a rare case study, and the lukewarm support he received is telling; mainstream Americans were not interested in viewing Indians as living people with a culture worth learning about. Most important, Catlin's writings of his experience in Indian lands and abroad demonstrate his exceptional receptivity to foreignness. Catlin did not see or market himself as a "travel-writer" but rather an artist and advocate for the Indians offering his own brand of proto-ethnography to the nineteenth-century reading public. Nevertheless, his work is an unusual addition to the travel-writing genre, and particularly productive in its presentation of how one adventurous traveler's experience of cultural difference led to cosmopolitan awareness. The extent to which one's experience of a foreign culture can be communicated to others who have not shared in those experiences is limited, and this accounts, in part, for the contradictions, defensive rationalizations, and rambling reflections present in Catlin's accounts. He faced a task that travel writers who direct their work to home-bound readers can't avoid: the unacknowledged naiveté of such readers must be dealt with, and foreignness presented in terms of the known. The psychological processes undergone by cross-cultural travelers can be significant, and are not so easily translated to the uninitiated. Cooper recognized that cross-cultural encounters had formed American identity from the start and worked against the prevailing tendency to denigrate, dismiss, and destroy Amerindians. He noticed that efforts to encourage international acceptance of American culture as a distinctive, worthy addition to the catalog of world cultures were often hampered by cross-cultural missteps and failures. More than most, Cooper understood the process of exploring foreignness as well as the value of the experience, but found that understanding difficult to communicate to less-cosmopolitan audiences. Cooper's cross-cultural engagement is explored in two works that participated in the ongoing transatlantic squabble over the insinuations about U.S. culture in travel writing by Europeans. In Notions of the Americans (1828) and "Point de Bateaux à Vapeur--Une Vision" (1832), Cooper advanced American arguments against the propriety and usefulness of such judgments. Homeward Bound and Home As Found (1838), took these transatlantic discussions to a different level. Remaining staunchly American, Cooper was less interested in defending his country from European "attacks" than in understanding the differences that inspired them; his argument, aimed at Americans, was for a more enlightened U.S. culture--one that had the cosmopolitan skills required to command respect internationally. Cooper's ultimate understanding of "culture" as a moveable category of human difference in The Monikins (1835). Fuller worked for a cosmopolitan American culture that would be able to lead the world for the sake of the progress of humanity. Americans would be simultaneously citizens of the United States and of the world. Through her engagement with other cultures, she sought to fit her own to her ideal. Hers was not a consuming globalism, but a model of international engagement from the ground up. By extending the transcendental opposition to individual conformity to the cultural scale, Fuller hoped that thinking Americans would learn to benefit from the "variety" that surrounded them. In her writing and by her example, she shifted the focus of travel from place to people, urging Americans to travel not only to see foreign places but to meet foreign people and immerse themselves in foreign points of view. She relates her impressions of Native Americans as foreigners who suffer from Americans' failure to see them as a people worthy of respectful engagement, and her desire that her country not repeat that mistake in dealing with other nations. In her first significant travel experience, which exposed her to immigrant settlers and Indian communities, she discovered her interest in learning about and forming relationships with groups of people who were different from her, displaying not only cosmopolitan curiosity but cosmopolitan willingness to put herself forward into the unknown. Her years of study of foreign language and arts had left her better prepared to make meaningful connections there. As a woman she felt especially well-positioned to practice a cosmopolitanism that was its own kind of revolution.