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INTRODUCTION AMONG the number of non-official inspectors who came from Europe to the United States between the year 1776 and the year 1802—the quarter-century elapsed between the Declaration of Independence and the incorporation of the vague West —there was not one whose record of his observations is uninteresting. The great Experiment attracted men of a superior type to see what the new nation was; or, of those who found themselves landed in America at that time it was the man of ordered intellect, open-minded, who set down memoranda. The result is a series of documents, a book for every year almost, which if not an absolute registry for that era of origins is beyond question an extraordinary repository, both as fact and by comparison, for when before have the beginnings of a nation been journalized ?
The impulse to the keeping of a day-book may be of several sorts, the purely business, the scientifically objective, the literary-facts for profit, facts as facts, and facts somewhat as drama. This book by John Davis is for that period fairly unique as the work of a Traveller who was professedly literary, who cared little for the political aspects of what he saw and asked no place among statisticians. CrèvecQur and Chateaubriand were sentimentalists, but Crèvecæur is very disquisitional and Chateaubriand might have written his book in his tower. Henry Wansey, in his Journal of a Summer, is the Pepys of this eighteenth century group; Parkinson and Cooper are also, in their way, entirely practical; the others, Robin, Chastellux, Schoepf, Castiglioni, Coke, Bayard, von Bülow, and the rest, are political philosophers, topographers of more or less sprightliness, anecdotal, tabulators, or men interested in natural and applied science, all good, and none like John Davis.
In the first place, John Davis was not at all a heralded foreigner. He came to America a very young man, twenty-two years old, to make a living. He could not inspect except in and between places where he found employment. As it happened, his business led him from New York to South Carolina, and (south of New England) he saw the country as it was along the coast before Ohio was a State. He was a sailor with a literary sense and equipment, resolved after a dozen years of the sea to make literature a profession. Being active and industrious, although a writer of meditative verse, he succeeded: the second edition of his book bears the sub-title, “Travels in Search of Independence and Settlement. Portum Inveni."
John Davis was in the writing business, and he could not afford to be habitually a recluse. From the pages of his book an adequate idea may be had of the status of American authorship at the turn of the eighteenth century. That is perhaps the least worth of the book, but since there is not a great deal of direct evidence on this point, it is to
be remarked that Davis took stock of the literary situation at that time, talked with authors at Dickins's shop in Philadelphia, and knew Brockden Brown, the novelist, and Joseph Dennie, the critic. The wherefore of a national literature is not explicable in brief. The opening of the nineteenth century seems to have given promise of such a thing in America, and John Davis saw something of that. He and his learned friend, Mr. George, who said, “Where are their poets ? ” stated the pro and con for the year 1799, but Davis was in the right, whether from wisdom, tolerance, or merely because he took the other side.
A certain importance attaches to the beginning of a century, and the Traveller is on the whole fortunate whose notes are made around the rotund zero years. It is a distinction to have seen (year 1800) the author of Arthur Mervyn at work,
embodying virtue in a new novel," to have been commended, and also abased, by " that Mammoth of literature," the Editor of the Portfolio, to have maintained a literary correspondence, (year 1801
-superscriptions, Long Island and Virginia), full of Pope and the Augustan age, and to have been a spectator at the inauguration of the Federal City. It appears that John Davis was the originator of a Jefferson legend that has persisted a hundred years. And he was the first of the many who, by the interstitial work of fancy, have made of Captain John Smith's story a romance..
The author of these travels walked, with occasional recourse to the stage-coach, the horse, or the sloop; he seems to have been the sole traveller of that time who walked through a great part of the fifteen States. As between the vehicle and footpassengership there was perhaps no great dissimilarity in the data offering for observation, but the pedestrian must be individual and if he is bookish as well the record of his journeys is apt to give the suggestion of a personality; that is to say, the impressionist writer is usually bookish, and if, being on his travels, he chooses for any reason that mode of transit best fitting his character, the result will likely be a more permanent expression of the man. John Davis believed that, and his own assertion may recommend his book: “This Volume will regale curiosity while man continues to be influenced by his senses and affections." *
John Davis was a vagrant from his youth, and is an interesting figure quite apart from the significance of his activities as international author and observer of young America—it is not to be expected that a seaman will learn the French of books, then Latin, and then become a producing man of letters. In the preface to one of his novels, (First Settlers of Virginia, 1805), the author supplies information regarding his career, which no doubt after 1806 was that of a London journalist and book-maker. He was born at Salisbury, Wiltshire, in the year 1776, and was 'reared in the lap of opulence.' He was never at school,
[* The last chapter of this book, an appendix, has been omitted. It was discreetly abridged by the author in his second edition, being merely a heightened log of his voyage from Baltimore to Cowes in the Isle of Wight. The remainder of the text is entire. Supplied footnotes have been enclosed in brackets, as this.]