Innumerable as are the books of travel now into every region of the world, the proportion of good ones to the whole is still very small. For because traveling is the fashion, and almost every one who has a little money and time to spare makes use of the daily increasing facilities to extend the range of his experience, it does not follow that many of these shall have the elements of knowledge, the equipoise and discipline of faculties needful either to appreciate the known, or detect the unknown. Neither is the power of picturesque, concise and suggestive recital of what has been seen and heard commensurate with that of writing grammatically and in a legible hand.
Indeed the requisites for a good observer and narrator are many, and their combination rare.
1st. The person should be in good health. We do not want the partial or exaggerated statements that come from a morbid state in the traveler. Beside, without vigor and elasticity he cannot have the necessary enterprise and persistence in striking out new paths.
2d. He must have a generally cultivated mind and just at the right point; knowing enough of the views and suggestions of others to be on the look-out for all they were seeking for, yet not too much burthened with theories and opinions to receive its own proper benefit from the hour and the occasion. But if there must be an excess, it is better to be too little than too much informed as to what has already been seen and known.
3d. The traveler should have some knowledge of science, and some notion of the scope of the fine arts, or the peculiar influences and the most expressive features of life in each land and nation will be likely to escape him.
4th. He must have a poetic sensibility to what is special and individual both in nations and men.—Fineness and largeness in perception and sympathy are strangely rare among men, so that not one in ten thousand is able to see his fellows as they are.—The rest of the ten thousand look upon their fellowman only in relation to their own personalities or objects; those who aid these are good, those who do not, bad; and if you glean from their comments any portion of pure truth, it is with more difficulty and at more peril of mistake than it is worth.
This poetic sensibility ought to be common to every one, and we perceive distinctly that, at some periods of history, it has been far more so than at present; but now minds highly endowed in many respects, are often so deficient in this, that no observation of theirs will ever reproduce the reality. In the world of writers we find very few, among our daily companions almost none, that look through the veils which are hung over the realities of life—few or almost none that hold “the golden key, which, turned so softly, turning with so sweet a sound, unlocks the hearts of men.” And you can see nothing of the institutions and manners of a nation, unless you can look into the heart from which they grew.
5th. He must have the power of generalizing without that exceeding love for it which leads to so rapid a scrutiny of the particulars that they do not abide in the memory, and we have only an inference, when we want the facts also. The mind of the traveler should be in some degree philosophical or he can take no large views; but it must be still more poetical in its keen sense for those things which are the symptoms of life.
6th. The traveler should have no special object in traveling, beyond the delight of new and various impressions, or, if he has one, it should only absorb enough of his time and attention to give earnestness and spring to the rest.
All these are requisites for him who shall see enough as he moves about to give us a full and lively account of what he has seen, even if the power of expression correspond with that of sight, and how few possess so much as two or three of them!
Among those we have, the best as to observation of particulars and lively expression are by women. They are generally ill prepared as regards previous culture, and their scope is necessarily narrower than that of men; but their tact and quickness help them a great deal. You can see their minds grow by what they feed on, when they travel. There are many books of travel by women that are, at least, entertaining, and contain some penetrating and just observations. There has, however, been none since Lady M. W. Montague with as much talent, liveliness and preparation to observe in various ways as she had.
A good article appeared lately in one of the English periodicals, headed by a long list of travels by women. It was easy to observe that the personality of the writer was the most obvious thing in each and all of these books, and that, even in the best of them, you traveled with the writer as a charming or amusing companion rather than as an accomplished or instructive guide.
Among the men this is scarce less the case in fact, though it is less obvious, because they have a larger stock of outward objects to describe; yet, in a great proportion of them, we have more of the writer than his subject, whether the impression of personality relates to the religious enthusiasms of Chateaubriand and La Martine or the lost pantaloons and cups of tea of our countryman, Stephens.
This extreme personality makes a book, as often it does a person, amusing at first, at the expense of permanent interest. Flights of emotion and vivacious sallies are easily appreciated. A mere intellectual narrative wins us slowly, but by a thousand subtle charms, and sows seeds in our memory. In such the ground is judiciously plowed and watered by the discoverer, who thus becomes the proprietor and makes us his tenants; in the others it is petulantly trampled over by a hasty steed whose object lies beyond. Such travelers rob the desert of its untrodden sanctity without making it blossom like the rose in return.
Opposed to these extremely personal narratives, are bare Daguerreotypes of the external features of the scene, such as those of Kohl, or intelligent gossip about the same like those of William Howitt.—These are not without their use in showing better lookers than they where to look for many things, thus saving their time and their attention from unnecessary wear and tear.
Most of those which possess any kind of interest have become current in this country, but there are three or four which, in the absence of a complete or general merit, possess so much in several kinds that we think they ought to be universally known, and would hope by this notice to awaken the attention of their proper readers.
On the hackneyed ground of Italy there are two that could not fail to be of great use to the student who wishes really to see the Italy of Italy, and to take, not Italo-American, but Italian views of the garden of the world.
One is Forsyth’s Italy. This is a collection of fragments. If we remember right, the author was one of the unhappy Detenus, who had as much reason to curse Bonaparte, as the Italian and Austrian prisoners have to curse the polished and serene Metternich; and these fragments were written down from memory, under the depression of exile, loneliness and hope deferred. Still their tone of high culture, refined taste and harmonious thought makes them very valuable. No one who seeks mere amusement need try the book, but one who wanted aid in forming taste, or to be stimulated to a higher point of view and more accuracy and delicacy in observation than contents the crowd will find a preceptor and a friend in Forsyth. The book, we see, is for sale at Wiley & Putnam’s.
Goëthe’s “Journey into Italy” and “Second Residence at Rome” have never, we believe, been translated into English, and it is high time they should be. The presence of Goëthe excites instinctive antagonism in this country. He is one of those whose office it is to stem the tide that hurries us on so fast; he vindicates the individual against the mass, seeks for help to the world in private culture rather than public measures, and would educate the people indirectly through the influence of the Beautiful, refining and elevating the whole nature, rather than through direct legal or moral stress in any one or two directions. Little things are to him of vast importance, as the means of reflection on the whole; the least fragments are gathered up with infinite care. Much diving is not grudged for a single pearl, and the driest technics of practice are made to yield a precious harvest of thought. It is this patience, this depth, this serenity consequent on a great scope of vision, and clear discernment of the infrangible links between cause and effect, that are so opposed to our hasty, over-emphatic, superficial mode of action; and it is just because he possesses what we need to balance our own mode till a harmony be attained, that antagonism against him rises up at first. When conquered, we realize the truth of the saying that “hate is love disguised.”
Those who are indignant at Goëthe for pursuing his studies in Natural History while the cannon of Jena reverberated on his ear, will consider these books trifling. Those of deeper discernment, who are willing that a great man should do as Nature intended and his soul dictates, even if it be not according to their pet model, will bestow enough attention on these trifles to see their importance, and draw with Goëthe world-wide inferences from the miniature details of special studies. But as he studied Italy, so must his books be studied,—no reading in the usual style of this country will acquaint with their contents; they must give much or nothing, but that much is of a sort not attainable elsewhere.
England is scarce less hackneyed, and still more difficult ground. And of all the tourists who have tried it, who is so entertaining as Prince Pückler Muskau, commonly spoken of as “the German Prince?”
Here again is a traveler whose personality is always apparent, but a personality how large and rich! He combines the manners and culture of the highest class with a taste for whatever is bold, poignant, subtle or dramatic in the life of the lowest and of all classes, a graceful persiflage, half sad, yet sparkling, keen sagacity and great descriptive powers. Laborious tourists, armed with spectacles and umbrella, distrust the observations of the gentleman in the dress coat and orders, who hides his little note-book beneath an embroidered vest, but with the Prince leather and prunella fulfil their proper office of clothing the body without impeding its agility or disguising its proportions.
The best poetic descriptions we have ever seen of pictures and buildings are by “the German Prince.” He repaints and rebuilds them; he has an extraordinary power of investing words with the forms and colors of his subject. At the same time he represents the human and poetic interest. His own peculiarities of taste are obvious; they are such as to delight us, even while we make allowance for them in estimating his judgment of what he sees so as to get at the average of truth. This book will not easily wear out, and ought to be published here again.
Dr. Waagen’s book on England has been translated into English, but we think not many copies have found their way across the water. The book is called “Works of Art and Artists in England. Dr. Waagen was director of one of the great galleries of Art which are the pride of Germany, and had letters to many persons of royal and noble blood, so that the treasures now accumulating and oftentimes hidden in the palaces of England were opened to him, not only for a hasty survey, but for deliberate study.
The spirit of England is exactly opposite to that which made Greece of old the home of genius. There the wealth of purse and mind was expended on public edifices and works open to the instruction and enjoyment of all men. It was shame to a citizen if he decorated his home too richly, or kept precious things for himself, rather than consecrated them to the honor of religion or the State. But it is the pride of an English noble to keep things to himself. Many have fine collections at country seats which they scarcely visit, and which are only now and then seen by the traveler in haste and under the surveillance of a domestic, to whom he gives a handsome douceur. We can imagine the great men to whom we owe these works of beauty, if now they look back on the scenes of their labors, eying with mournful and indignant looks the damp solitudes where lie entombed those forms which would, they thought, daily minister through ages to the joy and inspiration of a throng of disciples. O! it is a deep wrong thus selfishly to keep back from men what might so greatly benefit and bless them. In consequence of this state of things we, who have read almost all books of this kind that exist about England, had not any conception, till Doctor Waagen’s visit, of the vast riches of this kind hoarded in England; how far beyond all that Aladdin’s lamp disclosed, as far as the magical realities of genius outgo the dreams of fancy. Here in New-York pictures are ordered, they say, as a necessary part of fashionable furniture. The English noble furnishes his walls with souls, the trophies of Titans climbing the heavens and bringing away their brethren in captivity.
Dr. Waagen’s book is merely a list of these treasures, but a list made out and marked as only a virtuoso of diamond-pure virtue could do it. In him we see concentrated, refined and arranged, the best knowledge, the last analyses of taste, so that each word he says tells, and all his plain remarks are keys to regions of thought. In him is a water-mark to show how high mind rises in one direction. Such men are the best gifts of imperial and regal munificence; which can neither create nor reward genius, but may foster critics and connoisseurs to the perfection demanded by the museum of ages that opens before us now.
This book, again, must be studied. To the careless reader it will seem merely dull—a somewhat bare descriptive catalogue; for there is in it no superfluous word, nor embroidery of any kind. But he who examines it with care as a series of hints from a most able instructor, will find himself abundantly rewarded for much trouble and time, and will prize the memory of that day above millions given to the chit-chat of common travelers. Forsyth’s seed-corn left where storms did not permit a noble harvest to be gathered in at the right time; Goëthe’s, a guide-book through the studies of artists to the contemplation of the Universe; the Prince Pückler Muskau’s, an entertainment splendid with gold and silver, prodigal in hock and venison, where the guest may indeed need a stimulus to the palled appetite, but where there is enough for him who does hunger, and the minstrel and the beggar are both admitted to sing their song and tell their tale. Dr. Waagen’s is, on its chosen subject, a simple and concise Word to the Wise, and it is—sufficient.*
“Books of Travel.” New-York Daily Tribune, 18 December 1845, p. 1.