A bad girl abroad: The first American travel novel

It’s not every day that one leans back in one’s chair after finishing an academic article printed 15 years ago in the scintillating Henry James Review and says “Holy shit.” But today is indeed such a day, dear readers. Because hot damn, I found some history.

Sarah Wadsworth is an English professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and waaaay back in 2001 she wrote an article tracing the roots of Henry James’s interest in American women getting into trouble in Europe. Among his many accolades, James gets the credit for “inventing” the literary trope of the American ingenue abroad.

But get this: The first “travel novel” featuring an American woman as its protagonist is actually Mary Murdoch Mason’s Mae Madden: A Story, about a young woman’s love triangle in Rome. Wadsworth argues that Mae Madden was probably the inspiration for James’s Daisy Miller, which more or less put him on the map. Daisy Miller is about “an impossibly well-dressed American girl” and her romantic entanglements in Rome, and the plots of the two books track pretty closely. Mae Madden was first published in 1875 and again in 1876. Daisy Miller appeared in 1878.

Mason’s novel is significant because she broke with the popular trend of writing about one’s real travels in painstaking detail. “The concern that ‘there is nothing new to tell’ was evidently a common one in the 1870s, when the popularity of American women’s travel writing was at its peak,” wrote Wadsworth. So instead of just publishing a diary about her time in Italy like her peers did, Mason turned her experiences into a fictional story!

I cannot emphasize enough how big of a shift this was for American travel writing.Read More »