WHEN the young American traveler John Lloyd Stephens reached the Egyptian pyramids in 1836, he could not disguise his disappointment. Recalling the experience in his best-selling travel book Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (Chronicle Books, 473 pp., $15.95 paper), first published in 1837, Stephens pronounced that "It is not what it once was to go to the pyramids." Too many tourists.
Stephens told his readers that a voyage down the Nile was so painfully "calm, tame, and wanting in ... high excitement" that it could be done by women and children. Grateful for the news, readers thanked him with $25,000 in royalties. The book sold 21,000 copies in two years, and remained continuously in print for almost a half-century. Last reprinted by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1970, this is the first paperback edition.
The contemporary reader will find Stephens's work taxing. Like many of his era, he was an unabashed cultural imperialist. He regularly reiterated the belief that his society was superior to any other and habitually gave himself the right to glimpse the world as spectacle. Yet despite this heavy baggage, he often was an equitable reporter, moved beyond his prejudices to a sympathy for ordinary people.
How much the American sensibility changed in 40 years is manifest in novelist Henry James's Italian Hours (Penn State Press, 376 pp., $29.95), edited by John Auchard. Reprinted from the first American edition published in 1909, these essays, penned over a period of several decades in the last quarter of the 19th century, express such absorption with another country that Stephens would likely have considered them un-American.
Where Stephens saw poverty and abhorred it as a symbol for all that the American potential stood against, James saw privation only as a deplorable aspect of an otherwise attractive society. He observed people who did not have enough to eat, yet granted that "the rich Venetian temperament may bloom upon a dog's allowance."
An acclaimed author, scion of a cosmopolitan East Coast family, and representative of a nation whose achievements in commerce and industry - if not culture - were unparalleled, James could afford to be generous. To read his Italian remembrances is to behold a bounteous expatriate lifestyle that has all but vanished.
Stephens rushed through Egypt as if he were on a package tour. James, on the other hand, alludes to spending a couple of months just in Venice. His impeccable language shimmers with fine feeling, born of ample time.
Though their situations were dissimilar, Stephens and James share one conspicuous tendency: an antipathy toward other travelers. James lights into the foreigners who have turned Venice into "a battered peep-show and bazaar." For him, and for Stephens, sights are spoiled by the presence - or mere trace - of another foreigner. Somewhat defensively, James argues that the sentimental tourist "likes to be alone; to be original; to have (to himself, at least) the air of making discoveries."
More than a century ago, before jumbo jets and motor coaches, before anyone could imagine that the accumulated breath of untold tourists would endanger Gothic cathedrals, these travelers decried a shrinking world. Both James and Stephens were disillusioned by global development. They wanted to be adventurers, but had to stand in line to get a ticket.
They were, in a word, us. Our postmodern perception of lost travel opportunities pulses in their writing to such an extent that we must suspect that it has been a factor in Western intellectual life all along.
Reading these authors today, in an era of increased ethnic identity around the planet, nudges one to question the fatalistic assumption that modernism inevitably spells an end to distinctive peoples, regions, ideologies, and customs.
Although many indigenous societies around the world are now seriously threatened with extinction, the inevitable global decline into dreary sameness that Stephens and James implicitly forecast did not come to pass. For better and worse, beyond the baggage-claim areas and the expressways, there is still world enough.