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Book cover for 'Exploring European Frontiers: British Travellers in the Age of the Enlightenment'

Author's response


Exploring European Frontiers: British Travellers in the Age of the Enlightenment

Brian Dolan
Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 00333789873, 248 pp., 2000

Jeffrey Brautigam

The Enlightenment craze for comparison has a well developed history. Emerging sciences like anthropology, which assigned categories to peoples according to a relative scale from rudeness to refinement, anatomy, where comparisons between male and female skeletons were studied for the first time, to linguistics, where grammarians and orientalists searched for new origins of language and used evidence of linguistic evolution and diversity to bash the Tower of Babel apart, all became emblematic of Enlightenment pursuits. Across Europe natural history cabinets were constructed and the collections of curiosities, classified according to the latest theories, were becoming tourist attractions. The more display there was of nature's diversity, the more reason there was to travel.

With all of the attempts that the Age of Enlightenment bred to recapitulate the 'Adamic process' of establishing order from the blooming bussing confusion surrounding everyone, it seems many explorers were easily overwhelmed. 'Once one takes it upon oneself to go out into the world and enters into close interaction with it', advised Goethe in 1787, 'one has to be very careful not to be swept away in a trance, or even to go mad'. The further one travelled, the more prone one was to disorientation. It's not hard to imagine that European travellers to the New World would take comfort in keeping company with fellow Europeans, making possible the sort of 'planetary consciousness' that Mary Louise Pratt described, or encouraging the 'objectifying habit' as examined by Anthony Pagden.

As far as I'm aware, Grand Tourists rarely descended into madness, unless brought on by severe intoxication. Moving around Europe for the elite was mainly moving around to see how alike, rather than how different, they were from the fashionable in other cosmopolitan cities. But in the second half of the eighteenth century a new kind of traveller began to emerge, the kind of traveller that was more interested in discovery than debauchery. This was an explorer of the sort that, given the chance, would with pleasure circumnavigate the world with fellow Europeans. But the scientific questions that motivated this kind of traveller could be asked much closer to home, and when this was done, it became apparent that the act of classifying oneself as 'European' – which, like all classification systems is based on certain criteria for establishing similarity and difference – was not as easy as reflecting on the concept half way round the world. German travellers of the Bildungsbürgertum relayed different messages about history and identity than did their French, Scandinavian, or British counterparts.

Exploring the frontiers, or fringes, of a geographical category like 'Europe', or a cultural category like 'European', quickly leads to the emergence of a number of subcategories. From nations to nomadic groups, the challenge to settle upon characteristics to determine matters of 'similarity' and 'difference' for classificatory purposes becomes – equally quickly – complicated if also controversial. One way of keeping sane when entering into close interaction with an endlessly branching classification system as it was being developed and debated in the eighteenth century is to focus on a few travellers who were at minimal risk of seeing each other as foreign in their visions of a shared identity. Hence the British travellers to the European frontiers that I discuss.

Professor Brautigam, in what I think is a thoughtful and fair critique of my book, is right to suggest that I was inspired by Linda Colley's analysis of British identity and John Brewer's analysis of the creation of a market for literary and aesthetic enterprise. I should point out however (lest expectations grow) that my study does not concentrate on the 'essence' of national identity (as in analysing British-ness) or develop the ways that the marketplace for travellers' tales and trophies propagated particular images of life at the European frontiers. As the reviewer points out, throughout most of the book we're on the road, mainly looking over the shoulder of one indefatigable traveller and prolific travel writer, Edward Daniel Clarke. The mission of the book was to suggest how we can move from the particularity of certain travellers' observations, to the sense of a British perspective on what could constitute a 'European' identity. How do we move from the category of particular to general?

This, of course, was the problem the explorers and theorists of the eighteenth century faced. How does one deal with ethnic particularity when attempting to embrace the Enlightenment spirit to make claims toward universality? What is left of such lofty ambitions when one locates the discourse of difference of life at the frontiers within the confines of Cambridge University, where Clarke settled as a Professor and from where he revised and published his voluminous Travels? This is where Professor Brautigam astutely observes that more could be said about Cambridge's role in the propagation of a new sort of pedagogy designed to expose European frontiers to undergraduate's eyes. I agree. Clarke was one of the first to take his patrician students off the beaten track of the Grand Tour and extend their education to previously neglected areas. Unfortunately, it was beyond my means in this book to pursue later travellers who followed in Clarke's footsteps. New perspectives on Enlightenment geography have multiplied the number of sites which must be investigated in local context (rather than presuming a unified 'European' Enlightenment), something which is reflected in recent efforts to analyse 'the Enlightenment' in context and within a comparative framework. It was always my hope that I would get to read similar studies to mine that compared the kind of visions held by travellers such as Clarke to others of all different nationalities.

Jeffrey Brautigam's Review

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