When you start to research early 20th-century female travelers, there’s an uncomfortable phrase that appears regularly: “first white woman to go here or there.” I don’t mean to single out Harriet Chalmers Adams for this, but here’s an example from an interview she did with the New York Times in 1912:
I have circumnavigated the South American continent, covering more than 40,000 miles, and penetrated savage wildernesses where no white woman had ever been.
For us to successfully make the case that HCA (and many of her contemporaries) warrants a larger place in our historical canon, she needs to represent something more historically substantive. So does she?
Adventure Journal recently dubbed HCA “the original adventure-lebrity.” And it’s totally true, especially when looking at her marketing efforts after her South American travels from 1904-1907. Just listen to the rest of her quote from above:
I have circumnavigated the South American continent, covering more than 40,000 miles, and penetrated savage wildernesses where no white woman had ever been. I have climbed mountains, walked in the extinct crater of Mount Misti, wandered in regions of mountain cold where my eyelids froze, and descending into the Amazonian wilderness, stayed in a region infested by vampires — creatures which until then I imagined to be pure myths. I have stood on the site of what is possibly the world’s oldest civilization, and have studied ruins built before the time of Babylon.
These are not humble brags. These are straight-up yuge brags, designed to garner media attention and to sell more tickets to her public lectures (which she often gave while wearing evening gowns despite publicly claiming to prefer more rugged attire).
HCA’s 1912 spread in the New York Times.
Adventure Journal nails it: “It’s sheer coincidence that the same itinerary would be Instagram-perfection in 2016. Explore ancient Incan ruins. Ride horses in the Andean highlands. Sail on Lake Titicaca. Canoe the Amazon. Hike to indigenous villages. Take picture with llama.”
Now if we’re feeling charitable, we can give HCA and her husband some credit for making a few minor contributions to science, such as discovering a peat river that served as evidence of volcanic activity in the Andes. And yes, their photos and accounts of the tribes living in the jungle were probably useful to anthropologists. But I think it’s clear that HCA was mainly traveling for the sake of travel, and that she turned herself into “a star” in order to fund the habit.
But how she chose to frame herself — as the first white woman to do this and that — was no accident.
If an American woman during the Victorian era took a trip, there was usually “a good reason” for doing so. Margaret Fuller went to Europe as a foreign correspondent. Nelly Bly and Elizabeth Bisland Whetmore traveled to set speed records, while Annie Smith Peck and Fanny Bullock Workman competed fiercely (and publicly) for the “highest mountain ascent by a woman” crown. What do these women have in common? They sought an “achievement” of some kind that garnered media attention AND travel funding. And by harnessing their own media narratives, these women were able to translate public interest into resources to follow their passions abroad. Some of these achievements were more arbitrary than others, but they almost always included a “first” of some sort. (We’ll talk more about the American media’s tendency to pit female travelers against each other in another post.)
This tendency sometimes manifested in racial terms that differentiated the presence of American WASPs (and WASP aspiring) from the presence of indigenous women in any given destination. At the time, the American public considered this enough of an “achievement” to warrant attention and praise. More plainly, being the “first white woman” in parts of South America was the only claim to originality that worked to garner publicity for HCA (and others), and so she used it again and again and again.
You see the achievement theme hold prominence in media coverage of lady adventurers until around WWII (Amelia Earhart is one of the last major examples of this trend before her disappearance in 1937). And here’s the thing: the early 20th-century travelers we still remember in popular culture today are the ones who consciously and successfully spun their journeys into achievement travel narratives that were picked up by the media during their lifetimes.
Want to use footage or photos of Amelia Earhart? As horrifying as it is, you still technically need a license from here.
Someone like Emily Hahn, however, is not a household name. Hahn’s first major book (Congo Solo) in 1933 about her rugged two-year journey across East Africa was more or less a flop. Critics pegged her as a flibbertigibbet despite the serious subject matter she wrote about, and she never quite shook off that perception, even though she went on to write 50 more books and contributed to The New Yorker for 65 years.
“Talent” is often ascribed to writers by their contemporary critics, who are influenced by contemporary trends. (Shocking, I know.) And I have a hunch that Hahn’s lack of a lasting cultural legacy is attributable — at least in part — to the fact that she wasn’t as adept as, say, HCA in spinning herself as an “achievement traveler.” Hahn went abroad primarily to do things like hang out with other expats, smoke opium, and get laid with scandalous people. (Sounds like a male Beat writer, right?) She was probably just too honest for her era about what she was up to while on the road, and male literary critics punished her for it dearly:
KIRKUS REVIEW (undated, but circa 1933)
The author of SEDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM seems to have changed her tune. Here is the diary of a woman writer, which tells the day by day story of her stay in the Congo, presumably in search of local color, but actually ending by being first aid to a white doctor in a frontier hospital. A graphic and unprepossessing picture of life in that outpost of civilization, but utterly unconvincing in so far as the human equation is concerned. Of course one reads on and on expecting something to develop in the way of emotional entanglements between the doctor and the diarist, but the doctor remains true to his native “”wife”” — the while the native wife disports herself as the spirit moves. Can’t see where there is a market for this book, unless a customer wants a novel sort of travel diary, and is interested in Africa.
Notice my bolded passage. How can a woman’s own account of her actual experience abroad be “unconvincing in so far as the human equation is concerned?” Seriously, someone explain this to me.
Look, if we’re being honest now, travel for travel’s sake is something that American women still wrestle to distance themselves from. Even today, there’s a subtle cultural pressure to travel for “a reason” in order to avoid looking self-indulgent. And since around 2000, one of the most popular ways to frame the “purpose” of female travel is as a spiritual/redemptive quest. Under the Tuscan Sun; Eat, Pray, Love; and Wild are all major examples of travelogues written as redemptive quests, and there are lots of current female travel bloggers who are even more explicit about layering a pseudo-spiritual dimension on top their backpacking trips. (See almost anything tagged #wanderlust.)
Here’s an example of the “spiritual achievement” trope in action. Note the “guru,” the traveler’s inexplicable presence at a humanitarian crisis, the redemptive ashram/spiritual river, the traveler’s reinvention as an aid worker, and her serene passing-of-wisdom to the next generation. The message is clear: the traveler’s journey is for something beyond herself.
So what’s the point here? Maybe it’s just this: Maybe our cultural memories can only handle one or two narrative themes per era, and if your personal story doesn’t fit those themes, then you (and your work) are at high risk of obsolescence — and of being left out of the historical record entirely. And their absence from the record means that we miss out on the stories and lessons of historical women whose journeys didn’t fit in with the particular molds of their eras.
Just as we should be conscious of this issue when looking at historical narratives, we should also watch out for this tendency today, as contemporary narratives begin to establish their historical roots. Your own travels are important and valuable to the historical record, even if they don’t include a perfectly lit image of you at an impossibly beautiful temple.
I have never looked like this. Ever. Not at home, and definitely not abroad.
I anticipate coming back to the Instagram Effect several times on this blog, not as a criticism so much as an attempt to understand why women today feel the need to present travel as such a perfect experience. If you’ve been on the road, you know travel is often ugly, dirty, and uncomfortable, yet we see incredibly little evidence of this on the top female travel Instagram accounts.
But for now, I’m going to close by bringing this back around to the question I posed earlier, about whether HCA’s accomplishments on the road are historically significant in a way that’s more meaningful than “first white woman to do this arbitrary thing.” Sure, I might be biased here, but I think the answer is yes, but not because HCA completed such a long checklist of destinations. HCA is important because she was an entrepreneur and a feminist, and she was also remarkably entertaining and downright brave. She broke stereotypes of what a Victorian-era woman could and would do, and she was savvy about the link between money and the freedom of movement.
In short, her legacy far outstrips her original marketing filter.