The European Journeys of William Cullen Bryant

Click on the red dots to follow William Cullen Bryant's travels around Europe

 

As William Cullen Bryant made his way across Europe with his family during one of his longer trips to Europe, he wrote extecnsively about his travels. His letters were meant for his family and himself, and were filled with ideas and observations about the people and the land. They did not include introspective comments. His language is detached; he writes as if he were a newspaper correspondant describing a scene, yet his words are filled with social commentary. His voice is powerful, not despondant; he is touched by the beauty of Paris, and haunted by then words of the homeless in London. The valleys and hills of Italy touch his soul just as deeply as the pauperism of Holland. Bryant does not allow his voice to carry too far into the depths of critique, but he does extend his love of all that is wonderful and touching in Europe, and all that which he fears.

In the heading of Bryant's first book of letters, this disclaimer was added to the book:

THESE Letters, sent home to the United States

during recent journeys in several countries of the

European continent, are laid before the public just as

they were written on the spot, without additions, and

with no material corrections. Of their imperfections

none can be more sensible that the author; their

merit, if they have any, consists in their being a

record of observations committed to paper while the

impression they made was yet clear and distinct.

The letters are never addressed to anyone, rather, they "contain...no regular account of any tour or journey made by the writer, but are merely occasional sketches of what most attracted his attention" (Letters of a Traveller 3). William Cullen Bryant's personal account of his letters might lead a reader to believe that he does not account his tour; he does. As the letters move across the continent of Europe, his sketches become travelogues. He accounts the methods of his journeys, whether by train, carriage, or horseback. His family accompanied him on his year long journey, resting and relaxing with the Bryant patriarch as he introduced himself to men of substance in Europe. The first set of journeys about which he writes carry William Cullen Bryant and his family far across the land of Europe. His intinerary reads like a list of the European birthplaces of every participant in the Olympics:

 

Paris, June 11, 1857

Heidelberg, Holland

Bern, Switzerland, August 1, 1857

Bagnieres de Louchon, Hautes Pyrenees, September 8, 1857

San Sebastian, Province of Gurpuscoa, Spain, September 28, 1857

Vitoria, Province of Alava, Spain, October 8, 1857

Burgos, Old Castle, October 13, 1857

Madrid, Spain, November 1, 1857

Carthegena, Old Spain, November 28, 1857

Malaga, December 2, 1857

Oran, Algeria, December 2, 1857

Algiers, December 20, 1857

Marseilles, France, December 29, 1857

Rome, May 21, 1858

Aix les Bains, Savoy, July, 1858

Evasham, England, August 9, 1858

 

During the long summer months, the family spent their time relaxing on the Riviera; baskingin the sun, and taking part in French festivals and Italian feasts. The Bryant family did not lack the necessities of life. The fact that the familt traveled together demonstrated the wealth. There seems to be no purpose for the trips, other than for the sheer relaxtion and quality bonding time tha Bryant's children got to spend with him. not to mention the time his wife must have had shopping!

Bryant's latter jounal entries deal with much of the same subjects, travel and his observations, but they also delve deeper into life in Europe. His focus shifts from mere travelogue to politically embattered republican, heralding America in this passage:

I think I shall return to America even a better citizen than when I left it. A citizen of the United States travelling onthe continent of Europe, finds the contrast between a government of power and a government of opinion forced upon him at every step. He finds himself delayed at every large town and at every frontier of a kingdom or principlality, to submit to a strcit examination of the passport with which the jealousy of the rulers of these countries has compelled him to furnish himself. He sees everywhere guards and sentinels armed to the teeth, stationed in the midst of a population engaged in their ordinary occupations in a time of profound peace; and to supply the place of the young and robust thus withdrawn from the labors of agriculture he beholds women performing the work of the fields. He sees the many retained in a state of hopeless dependence and poverty, the effect of institutions forged by the ruling class to accumulate wealth in their own hands. The want of self-respect in the inferior class engendered by this state of things, shows itself in the acts of rapacity and fraud which the traveller meets with throughout France and Italy, and, worse still, in the shameless corruption of the Italian custom-houses, the officers of which regularly solicit a paltry bribe from every passenger as the consideration of leaving his baggage unexamined. I am told that in this place the custom of giving presents extends even to the courts of justice, the officers of which, from the highest to the lowest, are in the constant practice of receiving them. No American can see how much jealousy and force on the one hand, and necessity and fear on the other, have to do with keeping up the existing governments of Europe, without thanking heaven that such is not the condition of his own country. (Letters of a Traveller 22-3)

 

This vitriolic treatise about the nature of life and politics in Europe is the strongets defense of America found in the Letters of William Cullen Bryant. His primary concern in writing his volumes of words about Europe is the defense of America. His work spans the spectrum of observation without commentary, to his scathing attack on the habitudes of Europe, with their corrupt and classist system at the center of his arguments. These letters are the testimony of what is important to an American, albeit one of higher class and distinction, but also what it not important to a citizen of the United States. Bryant's attachment to liberty and the popular control of government, coming from the Age of Jackson in America, where liberty was given to the common man, not the politicians. Bryant's remarks reflect respect for Europe, but the great deal of patriotism and pride in America during the 1850's, no matter where one traveled.


copyright Hendrick Booz

November 18, 1997