Remarkable transactions: How eighteenth-century travel literature transformed the geography of knowledge

Anne M Thell, Fordham University


Remarkable Transactions argues that eighteenth-century travel literature enabled British subjects to test out new narratives of knowledge in relation to the self. Travel narratives were one of the most widely read and published genres of the eighteenth century, particularly after the unprecedented success of William Dampier's A New Voyage Round the World (1697). Few scholars have focused extensively on travel literature, however, because of its formal difficulties and complexities. Yet by tracking the travel genre alongside shifts in eighteenth-century epistemology, I show that travel texts played fundamental roles in the emergence of new concepts of truth, knowledge, and fact from the Restoration to the Enlightenment and beyond. Travel narratives inherently deal in questions of knowing because they dramatize the act of acquiring and relating new information about the world. They are also about the self because they tend to focus on the idiosyncratic experiences of a single individual. As a result, travel narratives become textual spaces in which authors explore the connections between scientific knowledge production and subjective experience. For instance, while Margaret Cavendish resists 1660s experimentalism through her focus on the unique capacities of the imagination, Daniel Defoe creates a fictional empiricism that recapitulates the true experience of the subjective individual. Much later in the century, James Cook strives to create a purely factual document of his travels. My comparison of his Journals with the contemporaneous travelogues of Laurence Sterne and Tobias Smollett, however, teases out the impossibility of suppressing the self in even the most seemingly objective accounts. It also highlights the evolving relationship between scientific and novelistic modes of representation. The travel genre allowed eighteenth-century authors to experiment with new epistemological concepts and perspectives in a way that shaped disciplines themselves. It was fundamental to both the literary and the scientific coming into their own as disciplines and as methods, and therefore illuminates the shared, intricately linked histories of these related discourses.^

Subject Area

History, European|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Thell, Anne M, "Remarkable transactions: How eighteenth-century travel literature transformed the geography of knowledge" (2011). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3495897.