Italy is often thought of as a place for vacationing and tourism. Both Florence and Rome place in the top 10 on the U.S. News and World Report list of “World’s Best Places to Visit.”
Leisure and recreation, however, are not always the primary motivations for international travel, nor were they in the past. For two Americans of the 19th century, Anne Hampton Brewster and Caroline Crane Marsh, international travel was a vehicle for engaging with transformations in the world around them.
“These women weren’t going to Italy to consume good food, wine or clothing. They were much more than tourists,” said Dr. Etta Madden, professor of English at Missouri State University. “They became engaged with the local political and religious climate and were transformed by their travels.”
Through the eyes and experiences of largely now unknown women writers of the 19th century, Madden is uncovering how travel and communication can impact the global culture.
Political engagement in a time of change
Brewster, from Philadelphia, was among the first “female correspondents” — now called journalists — who moved to Rome in 1869 and lived there for more than twenty years. While she wrote letters published as newspaper articles that appeared across the United States, from Boston to San Francisco, most people don’t know her today.
Her lack of notoriety, according to Madden, is due in part to her dedication to traditional gender roles.
“I think it’s because she was not radical enough as a woman writer,” said Madden. “While other women journalists were putting their bodies out there and doing radical things like writing about being in prison or at the scene of military battles, Brewster was more careful about where she placed herself as she engaged in the politics of the day.”
Through Brewster’s writing, what she observed and experienced in Italy traveled all the way across the Atlantic back to the United States. Serving as an early example of community engagement, Brewster’s articles sought to draw parallels between political revolution in the United States and Italy.
“What’s happening in Italy in the mid-19th century is very similar to what happened in the United States in 1776,” said Madden. “Impoverished and oppressed Italians were seeking freedom from the monarchy. They wanted to have a republic. Americans saw what was happening in Italy as really important.”
New perspectives on religion
Marsh, originally from New York, was the wife of the first United States ambassador to Italy, George Perkins Marsh. While she did not publish widely, Marsh composed poetry, wrote sketches about her travels with her husband, and helped him translate mythology, and write encyclopedia articles.
Along the way, she also broadened her perspective on religion and piety.
“Over her time in Italy she became more humble about Roman Catholic religious beliefs,” said Madden. “She began to see her world as wide open to change and became engaged with the local culture to help the impoverished, uneducated masses.”
Originally prejudiced against other religious worldviews, Marsh’s humbling experience can be a lesson in cultural competence for everyone, according to Madden.
“Her travels helped her understand that Americans don’t always have the ‘right’ views and way of doing things,” said Madden. “Her writing reveals that she gained a little humility and actually came to learn something, not only about herself but also about the people she came into contact with and their complexity.”
For more information, contact Madden at 417-836-5422.