'Travel and Experience in Early Modern English Literature'

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Fac Creative Arts, Humanities &Education


In the last decade, critical interest in travel writing has flourished and attention has focussed largely, in early modern studies, on how the cross-cultural encounters expressed in travel literature afford insights into the proto-colonial imagination, acts of nation-building, and the understanding of the 'other'; attention has also been directed to how travel to the New World furthered new scientific investigations into nature. 'Travel and Experience' identifies changes to the understanding, and representation, of travel as a neglected field of study. It will explore how travel, as subject and practice, is involved in the early modern cultural debate between theoretical (or notional) and experiential forms of knowledge, and will show how this debate impacts, in turn, on the form and expression of travel writing.

My monograph will explore competing ideas about the purpose of travel, and the ways in which it should relate to book learning, across a range of literary texts and cultural contexts, focussing in particular on travel, humanist, and new scientific writings. It will begin by considering Roger Ascham's humanist objection to travel as the negative alternative 'end' of study; proceed to examine the progressive valorisation of the concept of experience grounded in the new science and posing a challenge to formalised methods of education; and end by exploring how imaginative travel writing can problematise the distinction between first-hand and mediated forms of knowledge explored in earlier chapters of the book.

I will argue that the theme of experience comments on, and is elucidated by, the triangulated relationship between humanism, travel, and the new science. An example of this is the new scientific 'Heads of Inquiries' which both grow out of, and answer, the humanist genre of letters of advice to sons setting out on their travels. 'Travel and Experience' will also contribute to the current critical interest in intersections between literary and scientific texts by considering the influence of the new science on seventeenth-century travel writing. Central to my approaches here is a consideration of how the narrative techniques of travel writing seek to accommodate new methods of recording observations, and offer new articulations of increased self-consciousness and methodological self-reflexiveness through the sophisticated use of narrative persona. I will argue that methodologies of travel observation and travel writing change in the seventeenth century in response to an increased awareness of the generic flexibility of travel writing, alterations in the experience of travel brought about by the Grand Tour, and the growth of the new science, particularly as expressed through the Royal Society. One benefit of the broad chronological and generic range of this book is that it enables a sustained analysis of changes and continuities in ways of recording observations.

As an instance of the increasingly sophisticated expression given to relations between theory and experience in late-seventeenth century travel narratives, I will examine John Dunton's 'Voyage Round the World' (1691) in terms of the following topics: the connections Dunton establishes between the physical act of rambling and the literary form of digression; his contradictory statements about whether his experiences are derived at first-or second-hand; and his application to reading of the analogy of travel, as he directs the reader in ways to impose methodological coherence on his book by 'travelling' through it. Because Dunton uses a novelty of design and method not only to express a range of unmatchable personal experiences but also to make the book a self-consciously new experience for the reader, his text shows that changes in the understanding and evaluation of experience lead to aesthetic as well as methodological innovation in the genre of travel writing.


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