Sunday, July 28, 2013

Book Review (#15 of 2013) Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (Vol. 2) by John Lloyd Stephens (1838)

See my review of Volume 1 here. Download the entire book here.

John Lloyd Stephens was an American treasure, one of the greatest American explorers. One has to admire his boldness, traveling without a great deal of plans and leaving his fortunes to chance and the hospitality of strangers. I've done that a bit myself, but not in the vastly underdeveloped days of the 1830s.

I enjoyed Volume 1 the best; there is much less excitement in Volume 2. Means of transportation is the hardest thing for the modern reader to comprehend, but is the centerpiece of this book as Stephen travels Eastern Europe on long carriage rides. Stephens and his fellow travelers, (he picks up a new one at each destination), hire a coach and a servant/driver, then are left at the mercy of the post houses, all of which are operated by Jews. It seems commonly accepted that these Jews were out to cheat the traveler, particularly foreigners, and Stephens' disdain comes through clearly.
Many of the words of vehicles Stephens travels in come from either the French or Russian, a few of which are found in the dictionary on my iBooks reader, meaning they were incorporated into English vernacular at the time. One has to imagine what he's traveling inside, and how he's sleeping on hay at the bottom of carriages; uncomfortable, to say the least. He gets the benefit of traveling to Russia in the summer, at least.

Stephens doesn't come across many Americans in Moscow or St. Petersburg, though he does spend some time with the American consular in St. Petersburg, an actual American instead of an installed local. Stephens retells Napoleon's failed taking of Moscow, and other parts of the Napoleonic wars relevant to the lives of veterans he comes across-- many French veterans were residing in Moscow at the time, some by exile.

I've looked at the same "world's largest bell that's never been rung" and "world's largest cannon that's never been fired" that Stephens marveled at in the Kremlin. He visits many palaces and museums in St. Petersburg, some of which no longer exist. He expertly retells highlights of the lives of Russian czars, and the reader wonders if Stephens learned the information while he was there, or had known it his whole life. He communicates in fluent French to most he meets with.

Stephens befriends a Pole who travels with him to Warsaw. Poland is suffering under Russian rule after a failed revolution in 1830. I learned a lot about Napoleonic history and Polish history from this book, Stephens does a good job informing the reader of its importance. I also learned of the Polish heroes who fought in the American Revolution, who apparently all Americans still honored in the 1830s. Tadeusz Kościuszko being one of the most important. Kosciuszko was inspired by Washington and Jefferson to fight for democracy in Poland in the 1790s. This admiration of American freedom and democracy is often found among peoples Stephens encounters. They love meeting an American, although they are surprised to find he has white skin (ie: not an American Indian).

The Poles strike Stephens as romantically patriotic but maddeningly bureaucratic. Few speak any languages he does, and he has a very hard time getting visas for his travel (visa issues are a recurring issue in his book, quite amusing to travelers of any era). By the time he visits the tombs of Polish kings in Cracow, he's ready to be done with Eastern Europe.

The book ends rather abruptly as Stephens departs. I give the whole book as 5 stars out of 5. One can learn a lot about European and American history through Stephens' retelling.

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