Voyage into Substance: Art, Science, Nature, and the Illustrated Travel Account, 17601840
by Barbara Maria Stafford
MIT Press, 645 pp., $39.95
Voyage into Substance is a study of illustrated scientific travel accounts from 1760 to 1840. It is itself beautifully illustrated; the pictures are always intriguing and a delight. It has been magnificently printed with grandiose margins by the MIT Press abetted by grants from the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association of America, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The money has been well spent on the illustrations, but the text is another matter: often inaccurate, consistently obscure and unconvincing, it unravels at once like a cat’s cradle the moment one examines it closely.
At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the travel book was immensely popular, surpassed only by the novel. To be the first voyager to print an account of an exotic clime with illustrations was a great ambition: it assured one’s fame and probably even one’s fortune. It was still a time of exploration and expansion into unknown regions, and travel books astonished the public with views of esoteric landscape, rare plants, and animals. Accounts of one’s own or neighboring countries were almost equally appreciated as popular sociology that described life in Paris under the Revolution; patterns of behavior and culture in Russia, Italy, and the Netherlands; picturesque customs in Switzerland and Portugal.
These different accounts provided material for philosophy and ethics as well as for political thought: they stimulated speculation. Perhaps the most famous example is Diderot’s Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, in which the incestuous customs of Tahiti inspire grand observations about the relativity of ethics. The travel books transformed European culture: they overturned most established ideas of anthropology, geography, poetry, philosophy, morals, economics, religion, and the biological and physical sciences. Few, if any, of these voyages were undertaken with the purely objective purpose of gathering facts: they were motivated by a profound dissatisfaction with contemporary culture, a dissatisfaction most often vague and unfocused. The revolutions in art, science, and philosophy as well as in politics were fed by the books of travel, by the disorienting visions of new landscapes and alien civilizations.
Professor Stafford attempts to make the immense mass of material on travel manageable by concentrating on scientific voyages: her subject is the relation between scientific description and illustration. She feels that “the cultural and geographical ramifications” of this literature have already been dealt with in “masterly studies” by other scholars, and she leaves them largely aside. Virgin territory is, of course, as much the prerequisite for a thesis subject as for a voyage of exploration, but this was not a wise decision: the relations between science and art depend too much upon the rest of culture and upon politics.
An opening chapter summarizes the work of various recent literary scholars on the development in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of a plain prose style—which Stafford believes was characteristic of travel writing and opposed to the earlier style of description heavy …