Fall 2017 Undergraduate English Courses

358:322 Virtual Travel in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

01   TTH4   CAC   18486  MCKEON   MU-111


Virtual Travel in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

What is virtual travel? The Voyages of Discovery by Columbus and other adventurers that opened up the New World to astonished Europeans inspired an enormous number of travelers to venture out onto the oceans of the world. These actual travels would have been literally unthinkable without virtual travels, which had no physical reality but in different ways were essential to those that did.

 If virtual travels were only mental and imagined we wouldn’t have access to them. We’re able to read about and study actual voyages because they were recorded in words and images. Some of these records, like maps and globes, were miniaturized representations of travels that had occurred in the past and served to guide future travelers. The record of a voyage was kept in a number of forms—ship’s logs, brief journal entries, more detailed narratives—and people soon found to their delight that reading travelogues conveyed the experience and knowledge of exploration without its actual fatigue and dangers.

This “armchair travel,” as it came to be called, helped inspire many sorts of narrative. Some were what contemporaries frankly called “imaginary voyages,” which closely imitated the conventions of actual ones (like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), or satirized those conventions to utopian or dystopian ends (like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Others, ancestors of modern science fiction, speculated philosophically on the existence of “possible worlds” (in the popular phrase), space travel, and extraterrestrial life.  

Not everyone believed travel was a force for good. Christian allegories that had long warned against confusing material with spiritual pleasures gained a new foothold in what could be seen as the mania for the mindless physical delights indulged by travel. Publication though print, now so familiar and seemingly harmless, was feared to involve a loss of control, a sacrifice of privacy, a vulnerability to strangers (who will read me? What will they make of me?) comparable to setting out on an unknown and perilous sea.

But over the course of the eighteenth century, metaphors of travel, like emotional and sexual  “transport” and the experience of being “moved” as though beyond our will, came to describe the mysterious realm of human interiority in deeply positive terms. The pleasures of armchair travel, detachable from a strict dependence on reading about travel in particular, became simply aesthetic pleasure, the voyage our imaginations take when, in Coleridge’s words, we willingly suspend our disbelief in the virtual.

We’ll begin by spending some time looking at how maps and cartography changed during this period, then we’ll read both obscure and celebrated authors—among the latter St. Augustine, Andrew Marvell, John Bunyan, Aphra Behn, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, William Collins, and William Cowper.

Requirements: consistent attendance, two papers, and several short exercises.