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Teaching American-Austrian Encounters: The Case for Bayard Taylor

By Nadine Zimmerli

At William & Mary, I developed a course on “Americans in Europe” and taught it on and off for four years. A core component of the class involved a midterm assignment in which groups of students would read through and present on nineteenth-century American travel narratives to their peers. The genre of travel writing burgeoned during the 1800s, as ever more Americans visited the European continent, and tales of travel diversified as the travelers themselves did once ease of transatlantic travel increased with the availability of packet boat service after 1820. While white male elites penned the earliest travelogues at the beginning of the century, the antebellum literary scene saw a boom in travel writing by a wide range of authors, including accounts by men of lesser means (Bayard Taylor), women (Emma Willard; Catharine Maria Sedgwick; Lydia Sigourney), African Americans (David F. Dorr; William Wells Brown), and Native Americans (George Copway), to name just the most prominent examples.

Of course, even by midcentury, only a fraction of Americans crossed the Atlantic, some 15,000 to 28,000 annually, and the vast majority of these travelers—comprising a scant 0.06 percent of the population at the time—belonged to the middle and upper classes, the socio-economic and cultural elites.[1] Yet, in my course, I encouraged students to study non-elite travelogues in particular to investigate the ways in which travel all over Europe conferred cultural capital, empowered lesser-status individuals to demand recognition, respect, and a voice at home, fixed notions of masculinity and femininity as well as race and class, and helped construct an American national identity. One of the standout narratives that my students found particularly engaging and rich in detail was Bayard Taylor’s 1846 Views A-Foot, or Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff. In the increasingly crowded antebellum marketplace for books on travel, Taylor’s stood out as the only book chronicling an affordable tour of Europe. When authors needed a gimmick to attract a publisher’s attention, his was the promise to journey across the continent as a pedestrian, and in so doing to travel as cheaply as possible, bringing European travel within reach of young apprentices such as himself (Taylor had just begun training with a printer west of Philadelphia). In essence, Views A-Foot was the original backpacker’s guide.

Taylor—the son of Pennsylvania Quakers who harbored poetic aspirations from boyhood on and who would achieve fame as a travel writer, eminent translator of Goethe’s Faust, and U.S. diplomat to Russia—set out for Europe in July 1844 at the age of 19 with his cousin Frank and a friend from school, Barclay Pennock, and returned two years later. He estimated that he spent $472 on his trip, which was roughly half of what American guidebooks advised travelers to budget for a seven-months-long tour of the continent. So Taylor managed to stay in Europe more than three times as long for half the money as regular American tourists.[2] (Of course, given that laborers earned 80 cents a day and a clerk perhaps $40 a month, going to Europe even on Taylor’s budget remained well out of reach for regular workers; $472 then amounts to approximately $16,000 now.[3]) Another advantage of Taylor’s chosen method of travel was that he got to traverse most of western, central, and southern Europe and interact with journeymen and students he met on the road, as well as humble villagers, rather than the more elite strata of society in which his fellow Americans often moved. His account also features descriptions of urban and rural life alike – all of this, plus Taylor’s age at the time of travel, makes Views A-Foot a particularly useful tool for teaching college students about nineteenth-century American views of and experiences in Europe. It’s not a stretch for many of them to identify with a peer (albeit one born two centuries ago) who traveled through Europe on a budget, especially given that Taylor pioneered this mode of travel.

Of all the locales Taylor visited, I find his observations of the Austrian domains particularly revealing. His remarks in the six (of forty five) chapters that chronicle his and his companions’ journey through Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria encapsulate all of the main tropes of American engagement with the continent that scholars have documented for the 1800s: assessing monarchical government and noting the superiority of the American system; voicing anti-Catholic sentiments; describing the drudgery of European women; exposing the poverty of rural populations; chronicling the artistic splendor of big cities; recording rhapsodic descriptions of natural landscapes; exoticizing eastern lands; recapping historic events; passing comment on European political affairs; and noting regular Europeans’ amazement at meeting Americans. The one-volume edition of Views A-Foot clocks in at over 500 pages, but the descriptions of the Habsburg lands comprise just a little over 50 pages, which is a manageable portion well suited to classroom assignment—or quick perusal by general interest readers.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that all the tropes enumerated above are present in Taylor’s account of Austria since Americans viewed the Habsburg domains as the bastion of conservatism and tyrannical government in the age of Metternich, thereby fashioning them as the antithesis of the U.S. republic. Although Taylor acknowledged that German-speaking populations often brought up the thorny topic of slavery, he defended his nation by declaring that “While we admitted, often with shame and mortification, the existence of things so inconsistent with true republicanism, we endeavored to make them comprehend the advantages enjoyed by the free citizen—the complete equality of birth—which places America, despite her faults, far above any other nation on earth.”[4]

In recapping a direct conversation with an Austrian leather worker, he made the contrast even more obvious: “While telling me of the oppressive laws of Austria, the degrading vassalage of the peasants, and the horrors of the conscription system, he paused as in deep thought, and looking at me with a suppressed sigh, said, ‘Is it not true, America is free?’ I told him of our country and her institutions, adding that though we were not yet as free as we hoped and wished to be, we enjoyed far more liberty than any country in the world.”[5]

Below are just a few other standout excerpts that illustrate some of the tropes enumerated above, but I invite everyone to read Taylor’s account of his journey from the Saxon/Bohemian border to Prague, through Moravia, to Vienna, and then through the Alps back to the German lands into Bavaria.

Right upon crossing from the Kingdom of Saxony into Bohemia, Taylor noted “a manifest change in our fellow travelers the moment we crossed the border. They appeared anxious and careful; if we happened to· speak of the state of the country, they always looked around to see if anybody was near, and if we even passed a workman on the road quickly changed to some other subject.”[6] Likewise, right after crossing from Austria into Bavaria after traversing the Habsburg lands, he exclaimed that “I could not help feeling glad to leave Austria … We noticed a change as soon as we had crossed the border. The roads were neater and handsomer and the country people greeted us in passing with a friendly cheerfulness that made us feel half at home.”[7] These observations demarcated the Austrian lands as more oppressive and less welcoming than more westerly parts of Europe.

The way he described Prague as a “fallen city” and exotic eastern place also stands out: “The fantastic Byzantine architecture of many of the churches and towers gives the place a peculiar oriental appearance. They seem to have been transported hither from Persia or Tartary.”[8] In general, he painted Bohemia and its population as despondent, backwards, and subjugated: “The poor degraded peasants always uncovered or crossed themselves when passing by these shrines but it appeared to be rather the effect of habit than any good impulse, for the Bohemians are noted all over Germany for their dishonesty, and we learned by experience that they deserve it. It is not to be wondered at, either; for a people so poor and miserable and oppressed will soon learn to take advantage of all who appear better off than themselves.”[9] It’s hard to know whether Taylor echoed the prejudices of his German acquaintances here, or whether he was predisposed to viewing Bohemians as browbeaten on account of their Catholic faith and being ruled by the Habsburgs. Americans generally saw both the Church and Metternich’s Austria as Europe’s repressive regimes par excellence, keeping people in ignorance, poverty, and dependence.

The status of women linked into these assessments: “Once I saw a wagon drawn by a dog, with a woman pushing behind, while a man, doubtless her lord and master, sat comfortably within, smoking his pipe with the greatest complacency! The very climax of all was a woman and a dog harnessed together taking a load of country produce to market! I hope, for the honor of the country, it was not emblematic of woman’s condition there. But … there is too much reason to fear that it is so.”[10] American travelers routinely passed judgment on the place of women in European society, and these observations drove home for a white middle and upper-class American reading public that central Europe was a benighted place given women’s daily drudgery (without any reflection on the meaning of the labor conditions of enslaved women of African descent for the United States’ own system).

Taylor seemed more enchanted with Austria proper but still cast Vienna as exotic, deeming it the “connecting link between the civilization of Europe and the barbaric magnificence of the East.”[11] For all of Vienna’s splendors, which he duly chronicled, Taylor felt much more at ease in the Alps, waxing rhapsodic about them in passage after passage. To provide just two tastes: “Here, while the delightful mountain breeze that comes fresh from the Alps cools my forehead, and the pines around are sighing their eternal anthem, I seize a few moments to describe the paradise around me. I have felt an elevation of mind and spirit, an unmixed rapture, from morning till night, since we left Vienna.”[12] Then: “The valley of St. Gilgen lies like a little paradise between the mountains. Lovely green fields and woods slope gradually from the mountain behind to the still greener lake spread out before it in whose bosom the white Alps are mirrored. … We breathed an air of poetry. The Arcadian simplicity of the people, the pastoral beauty of the fields around and the grandeur of the mountains which shut it out from the world, realized my ideas of a dwelling-place, where, with a few kindred spirits, the bliss of Eden might almost be restored.”[13]

It is notable that Taylor likened these alpine landscapes, which enraptured him, to the United States, at one point writing that “I have never been so strongly and constantly reminded of America, as during this journey … there is also a richness in the forests and waving fields of grain, a wild luxuriance in every landscape, which I have seen nowhere else in Europe. The large farm houses, buried in orchards, scattered over the valleys, add to the effect. Everything seems to speak of happiness and prosperity.”[14] The eastern landscapes and populations of Bohemia, and both Prague and Vienna, some of the most historical and artistically rich cities on the continent, left less impression on Taylor than sparsely populated alpine environs. In his mind, the Austrian domains appeared prosperous and happy only where the footprint of human society was at its sparsest!

I want to leave it at that. There are many more nuggets rife for unpacking and examination in Taylor’s chapters on Austria, from his encounter with a radical Pole in Vienna to his comparing Roma and Sinti peoples to American Indians, to a revealing anecdote involving an Austrian official who, after mistaking Taylor and his companions for Austrians and then realizing his mistake, switched from disdain to utmost courtesy within the span of a second. But I hope the teaser in this post is enough to inspire readers to take a close look at Taylor’s account of his travels through the Habsburg lands as a rich, yet manageable, teaching resource that conveys all typical mid-nineteenth-century American sentiments about Europe in concentrated fashion.

Author Bio:

Nadine Zimmerli is the editor for history and social sciences at the University of Virginia Press. She trained as a modern European historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2011. At present, she is completing a book manuscript tentatively titled “Cheaper than Paris: American Dresden before World War I.”

Suggested Reading/Link:

Bayard Taylor’s Views A-Foot, or Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff

[1] Brandon Dupont, Alka Gandhi, and Thomas J. Weiss, “The American Invasion of Europe: The Long Term Rise in Overseas Travel, 1820–2000,” Working Paper 13977 [] (Cambridge, MA: National Bbureau of Economic Research, May 2008), 54. Also see the introduction of Daniel Kilbride’s Being American in Europe, 1750–1860 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013).

[2] Kilbride, Being American in Europe, 3.

[3] Per the historical currency converter For estimates of wages, see Kilbride, 3.

[4] Bayard Taylor, Views A-Foot, or Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff (New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 502. Original edition 1846; I’m using the reprint edition here in part to show that this travel account proved incredibly popular throughout the nineteenth century and was reprinted continually for at least fifty years.

[5] Ibid., 228-229.

[6] Ibid., 211.

[7] Ibid., 268.

[8] Ibid., 216.

[9] Ibid., 224.

[10] Ibid., 226.

[11] Ibid., 232.

[12] Ibid., 250.

[13] Ibid., 263–264.

[14] Ibid., 252.