Correspondence: Exploration and Travel from Manuscript to Print,1768-1848

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Geosciences


This project examines the history and the writing of geographical exploration - explorers' accounts - and the published and printed versions of them, looking particularly at material held within the John Murray Archive (National Library of Scotland). The proposal brings together expertise in historical geography and in book history to examine the role of correspondence in the making and in the publication of geographical knowledge.

In this instance, the term 'correspondence' has three interrelated meanings here. First, it relates to the discursive conventions through which explorers framed geographical narrative, whether in the form of letters, diaries, or as continuous narratives. Second, correspondence relates to the means by which explorers and geographical travellers assured themselves of the truth of what they were told - that is, of a correspondence between what they were told and their experience of the world. This is significant since a central and problematic feature of the making of 'the modern fact' is whether travel makes truth. Establishing the credibility of empirical observations in geographical exploration is easier if one witnesses for one's self the phenomena in question. That was not always possible. But was the travellers' tale trustworthy, and if so, on what basis? Many tales of geographical 'fact' were little more than imagined fiction. The explorer has the benefit of immediacy, yet establishing secure facts about places is hindered by mobility and by the strangeness of what is observed, particularly when memory is no guide to perception. Not everything can be seen. Explorers commonly placed trust in the accounts of others, leading them to assume a correspondence between what they are told and the social status of the informant. Direct witness, credible testimony and reliable correspondence are all different elements in geographical exploration. Because this is so, it is important to examine the different means by which geographical accounts correspond to those parts of the world being written about. Finally, correspondence is central to the relationships between the explorers' own accounts (their written words and maps) and the printed versions of them that form the basis for published books and maps. Since there is evidence that some publishers altered explorers' texts in order to cater to public demand, we cannot always assume that what was published corresponded to what the explorer had written down or sketched. For these reasons, 'correspondence' between the real world and reports about it present the historian with a continuing problem, one that is often assumed but rarely tested.

This project reflects recent developments in historical geography, history of science and in the history of the book. In examining materials within the John Murray Archive (hereafter JMA) of the National Library of Scotland (NLS), the project is focused on an internationally-recognised collection, the extent of whose importance is only now coming to light. The materials within the JMA affords unparalleled insight into these problems. For the academic partners, the project will investigate the relationship between travellers' unpublished correspondence, the printed versions of geographical tales and the basis to trust in works, manuscript and printed, of geographical exploration. For the National Library of Scotland, the project will help promote the NLS agenda of public outreach and dissemination of its materials to a wide audience.

Published outputs will take the form of a book, articles to learned journals and contributions to the National Library of Scotland's house-journal 'Discover NLS'. The work will be promoted through the NLS website and the website of the Centre for the History of the Book (in the University of Edinburgh). Conference papers will be given at international meetings in geography and in book history. A 3-day conference will be organised around the project.


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Description In examining in detail the correspondence relating to John Murray's non-European texts of travel and exploration published in the period 1768-1859, together with the published works, we identified:
- credibility and trust as the main issue driving authors to write as they did and publishers to accept the work or not;
- authorship to be a cumulative process that began even before the exploration was undertaken;
- to be dependent upon the trope of modesty: It simply didn't do for the explorer-author to over-egg the claims made.
Exploitation Route The work we have done is the first time that one major British publisher has been examined in this way and for the genre of exploration in this vital period. The work has established a model by which subsequent work can be done: for other publishers, for different topics; for other (later) periods.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The work has begun to be cited in others' articles. Other researchers have used the publications to apply for Fellowships to come to Edinburgh to work with Withers (PI).
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services