Thursday, May 10, 2007

Travel Writing - or about how I'm on hiatus

With great relish I picked up a hard-cover copy of John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land from Powell's. You can download a copy of this book for free from Google Books, but there's something great about having such a book for real. He published this book under the pseudonym of George Stephens.

I've read a few segments of this book, and can already tell this will be a great delight. [fn1] Stephens was born in about 1806 in New Jersey and grew up in old Knickerbocker New York. He became a lawyer (actually, his education before the age of 13 was simply breathtaking [fn 2]) and was involved in politics a bit before he had trouble with his voice (some form of Strep, perhaps) and determined on physician's advice that a bit of travel to Europe might do him good.

Thus he launched on some extraordinary travels around 1834-1836 through Eastern Europe (including Greece and Russia), Egypt, and the Holy Lands. Later his travels would take him to the Yucatan where, wandering in the Jungle he would run across the Mayan ruins and report them to the English speaking world in great detail. Even later, he became Vice President and the President of the trans-Panama Railroad.

Thus, Stephens represents an interesting intersection of the passing Dutch colonial influence in America, the rise of industrialism and increased opportunities in commerce, the last throes of the Russian and Ottoman empires and the beginning of the waning of centuries-old ways of life in the Middle East. He comes from American Protestant piety, but crosses paths with Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism.

I will report back later on some observations about Stephens in relation to another Middle East travel writer, William Darymple.

Anyway, if you want a summer reading project, and you like travel writing . . . join the fun!

In the meantime, I may post a bit at my companion 'blog, but I'm pretty much on hiatus here.


- H

fn 1: Here is a snippet to whet your appetite: On the afternoon of the ____ December, 1835, after a passage of five days from Malta, I was perched up in the rigging of an English schooner, spyglass in hand, and earnestly looking for the "Land of Egypt." The captain had never been there before; but we had been running several hours along the low coast of Barbary, and the chart and compass told us that we could not be far from the fallen city of Alexander. Night came on, however, without our seeing it. The ancient Pharos, the Lantern of Ptolemy, the eighth wonder of the world, no longer throws its light far of the bosom of the sea to guide the weary mariner. Morning came, and we found ourselves directly opposite the city, the shippping in the outward harbor, and the fleet of the pasha riding at anchor under the walls of the seraglio, carrying me back in imagination to the days of the Macedonian conqueror, of Cleopatra and the Ptolemies . . . In half an hour I was ahore, and the moment I touched it, just as I had found at Constantinople, all the illusion of the distant view was gone.

fn 2: He entered the Classical School in 1815 at the age of 10 to prepare for Columbia College. The headmaster informed his father: "While your son remains here, he will be exercised in Latin and Greek composition; the higher he gets the more he will have of it." The curriculum also included history, analytical arithmetic, mechanics and chemistry, but classics were the heart of it.

He was admitted to Columbia College at 13, as secondary school didn't really exist. Admission was by examination, under the following regulation: "No student shall be admitted into the lowest class of Columbia College unless he be accurately acquainted with the grammar of both the Greek and Latin tongues . . . he is to be examined upon: Caesar's Commentaries, the Orations of Cicero against Catiline, the Oration for the Poet Archias, the Oration for Marcus Marcellus; he is to know the first eight books of Virgil's Aeneid; the first five books of Livy; of the Gospel according to Luke and St John and the Act of the Apostles; of Dalzel's Collectanea Graeca Minora; of the first three books of Xenophon's Cyropaedia and the first three books of Homer's Iliad. He shall also be able to translate English into grammatical Latin, and shall be versed in the first four rules of arithmetic, the rule of three direct and inverse, decimal and vulgar fractions, with Algebra as far as the end of simple equations and with modern geography. The classical examination to be ad aperturam libri [from the opening of the book - e.g., from whatever portion of the text they open the book to]" - Quote from Introduction to Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Patraea and the Holy Land, introduction by Victor, Wolfgag von Hagen, University of Oklahoma Press 1970 ISBN 0-8061-0886-X

Oh to have such an education by 43 let alone by 13!


Blogger Mimi said...

Wow! That sounds so fascinating. I've always wanted to read that book by Rebecca West, something about grey? that is about her travels in the South Slavic regions.

Anyway, I'd buy vs download too. Enjoy!

4:59 PM  
Blogger Ian Dalrymple said...

Yes, this is a wonderful book. I own a nice hardbound edition which is one of the treasures of my personal library.

Mimi is referring to Rebecca West's Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. I've been working through that massive tome slowly, but it's definitely worth the effort.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Hilarius said...

I will add Black Lamb, Grey Falcon to my list . . . and we'll have to compare notes on Stephens and (because I think I remember you mentioning reading William D.'s From the Holy Mountain) and comparing it to observations made by William D.

God willing.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Hilarius said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Mimi said...

That is what I was referring to, indeed. I saw it at the Used Book Store this weekend and it was a great effort to not buy it.

It is definitely on my "to read" list.

1:20 PM  

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