Cheryl J. Fish argues that the concept of mobility offers a significant paradigm for reading literature of the United States and the Americas in the antebellum period, particularly for women writers of the African diaspora. Charting journeys across nations and literary traditions, she examines works by three undervalued writers--Mary Seacole, an Afro-Jamaican; Nancy Prince, an African American from Boston; and Margaret Fuller, a white New Englander and Transcendentalist--in whose lives mobility, travel literature, and benevolent work all converge.
Refiguring the forms of domesticity, they traveled to the outposts of conflict and imperial expansion--colonial crossroads in Panama, Tsarist Russia, the Crimean War front, the U.S. frontier, and Jamaica after emancipation--and worked as healers, educators, and reformers. Each writer blended themes from exploration literature and various autobiographical genres to reconfigure racial and national identities and to issue a call for social action. They intervened strategically into discourses of medicine, education, religion, philanthropy, and emigration through a shifting and mobile subjectivity, negotiating relationships to various institutions, persons, and locations.
For each woman, travel removed her from the familiar and placed her in a position of risk, "out-of-bounds," emotionally or physically. Seeking their own vision of the territories, they came to see themselves as citizens of the world, deeply involved in the causes they witnessed. As Fish documents, their desire to improve the quality of life for oppressed and wounded peoples distinguishes their works from other popular travel writers of the time.
Drawing upon unpublished archival material such as letters, journals, and abolitionist periodicals, Fish incorporates print culture and theory into her discussion. She also examines historical accounts of the events and places with which these women were associated. She describes how Prince draws on the Bible and missionary discourse to make corrective readings of emigration policy and the lives of former slaves; Seacole appropriates the picaresque to embed her knowledge of Afro-Jamaican and Western medical tradition, and Fuller combines Romanticism and a fascination with racial science in her analysis of the American Midwest and in her evolving feminist critique. While writing in the popular 19th-century genre of the travelogue, Fish says, these black and white women were able to talk back, make and lose money, challenge stereotypes, and inform and entertain people with their adventures and benevolent work.