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 »

“We ought to live confidently”

There are few issues as thorny as a woman’s decision to prioritize career or family — and it’s far from a new challenge. In 1919, newly divorced Rose Wilder Lane wrote her first novel on the subject, and a century later, it offers a striking look at how far we’ve come in terms of female empowerment and opportunity — and how far we still have to go.

Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer woman who wrote a “little” series of books about life on the American frontier. Rose had already written about a dozen books when Laura’s first came out in 1932, and it’s well established that Rose helped her mom whip her manuscripts into shape.

Rose, too, capitalized on American nostalgia for settler life and published several Depression-era novels set in the Ozarks. But Rose was more interested in wrestling with the social issues of the day, and her work was deeply influenced by her travels with the Red Cross in post-WWI Europe. Her time in Albania in particular helped influence her political ideology, which eventually morphed into libertarianism. Along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Patterson, Rose is considered one of the “founding mothers” of that movement.

A couple of years before Rose first went to Europe, she wrote a book about a young woman struggling to come to terms with her own ambition — and learning to overcome the men and women who stood in her way.Read More »