As you gear up for Fourth of July celebrations, rediscover the United States through the eyes of foreign travel writers. From the frankly unimpressed to the instantly besotted, these authors turned their unique powers of perception on the land of the free and wrote remarkable books about what they found. Read on for excerpts of some our favorite travel writing about the U.S., both contemporary and classic.
Have you read any of these fascinating travel narratives? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
In 1832, three years before Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America, the English novelist Frances Trollope released Domestic Manners of the Americans, an eye-opening record of her travels in the young republic. Expecting a Utopia of “justice and liberty for all,” she is shocked to discover the contradictions at the heart of the American character. Funny and fearless, Trollope’s biting critique became an international sensation. Yet, as Mark Twain remarked, "She was merely telling the truth and this indignant nation knew it.”
"I will not pretend to decide whether man is better or worse off for requiring refinement in the manners and customs of the society that surrounds him, and for being incapable of enjoyment without them; but in America that polish which removes the coarser and rougher parts of our nature is unknown and undreamed of."
Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835, 1840)
In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, published in 1835, a monumental study of the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s evolving politics and institutions. Tocqueville looked to the flourishing democratic system in America as a possible model for post-revolutionary France, believing that the egalitarian ideals it enshrined reflected the spirit of the age and even that they were the will of God.
"Many important observations suggest themselves upon the social condition of the Anglo-Americans, but there is one which takes precedence of all the rest. The social condition of the Americans is eminently democratic; this was its character at the foundation of the Colonies, and is still more strongly marked at the present day."
Although Chiang Yee trained as a chemist in Nanking, and served as governor of four districts under the Chinese Nationalist regime, he came to discover that painting, rather than politics and chemistry, was his true interest. In 1933 he left China for England and began writing and illustrating books on Chinese painting, calligraphy, poetry, and family life. He was also absorbing and analyzing his new surroundings, and during a holiday in England’s lake district he wrote and illustrated The Silent Traveller in Lakeland, the first of his Silent Traveller books.
“One’s birthplace is an accident, and life consists of a series of accidents which may turn out luckily or not. A single lucky accident can bring unexpected joy into one’s life; that is what San Francisco has done for me.”
From the sierras of New Mexico to the streets of New York and LA by night—”a sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity”—Baudrillard mixes aperçus and observations with a wicked sense of fun to provide a unique insight into the country that dominates our world. In this new edition, leading cultural critic and novelist Geoff Dyer offers a thoughtful and perceptive take on the continued resonance of Baudrillard’s America.
"Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth."
In this lyrical, poetic, and charmingly funny book, Laurie Gough drives from Ontario to California reflecting on a life spent travelling in search of new experiences and familiar sensations. Heading towards a half-remembered cave on the Pacific coast where her younger, more adventurous self once stayed, she recalls adventures in Sumatra, the Yukon and many places in between—and wonders what compels her to keep moving through life while everyone else has found a place to belong.
“…California, the land of iced organic defatted decaf soy mochas at every small town street corner, T-shirts any day of the year, taco stands in the desert, orange trees on front lawns and avocado trees in the back; the land of redwoods and palms and palm readings down the road, mountains almost everywhere and a twelve-hundred-mile view of the sea. It’s the land of Tom Waits drinking tea in a backwoods café. I saw him once. He ordered the tea with his gravelly voice and when he got up to leave, he turned around to smile at me as if we were in one of his songs.”
Happy Fourth of July!