Barbara Penner

 

On her book Newlyweds on Tour: Honeymooning in Nineteenth-Century America

Cover Interview of September 28, 2009

The wide angle

At the root of this project lay my interest in honeymoon suites.  But the more I read about the general origins of honeymooning in North America, the less it made sense.  Why begin married life with a trip that’s exhausting and expensive and, usually, very public?  Indeed, the honeymoon’s contradictions run deep and, from certain angles, mobile figures like “travelling brides” can seem subversive.  They bring to the surface – though never resolve – many of the tensions emerging in America in the nineteenth century, for instance, between commercial and domestic cultures.  Newlyweds on tour were often caught between the realities and representations of honeymoon practice.

I’d like to emphasize this last point because it will help to explain the method and sources of Newlyweds on Tour, located somewhere between social and cultural history.  I started off treating this project more as a “straight” history of honeymooning.  But, like most people writing about Victorian conjugality and sexuality, I soon realized that more obvious sources, like newlyweds’ letters or diaries, were anything but forthcoming about their subjects’ experiences.  They were, for instance, virtually silent on the subject of the wedding night.  Thus, I cast my net wider, seeking out other evidence that might testify to the honeymoon’s function and meaning.

I did not look long.  I found an abundance of newlywed descriptions elsewhere.  A small but steady trickle of newlywed mentions in the 1820s and 1830s became a flood by the 1850s as they became a well-established type in the American social panorama, a standard feature not only of the tour but also of its representations in a wide variety of media.  The 1870s and 1880s, the golden age of the illustrated weeklies, offered a particularly rich seam of visual representations.  (I analyze a number of these in the book.)

As I amassed further visual materials and samples, it became obvious that newlyweds on tour were, if anything, excessively visible in proportion to the number of them doing the tour.  The only way to account for this cultural over-representation was to recognize how the tour was formed at the interstices of narratives that were important to modern American national identity – patriotic, memorial, conjugal, technological, romantic, religious, affective, and sexual narratives.  And they didn’t come seamlessly together; often they did just the opposite.

I came to see the bridal tour as a kind of two-way frame: the honeymoon framed narratives for newlywed consumption; and newlyweds on tour, either physically or in the media, become a frame through which others consumed these narratives.

But how did individual experiences and these cultural representations knit together?  Newlyweds were very conscious of the ideals and stereotypes of honeymooning behavior and knew full well they were on display; brides in particular were caught between the competing demands of privacy and exposure.

William Dean Howells brilliantly plays on this when the newlywed Isabel March in Their Wedding Journey confesses that her “one horror in life is an evident bride.”  But very humorously Howells makes it clear that, in a society where newlyweds are widely circulated cultural currency, the stereotypes were impossible to ignore.  This is not to say that newlywed behavior was pre-determined, but rather that they were always cross-referencing or negotiating their own experiences against these larger cultural scripts as they moved through the landscape of the tour.

How did these narratives operate?  I suggest it was through the process of sentimental identification.  The honeymoon provided a time and space in which newlyweds underwent intense bonding (itself a sentimental process) to ensure their marriage started off right.  But it was also believed that honeymooning newlyweds stirred up the sentiments of the population at large.  The sight of them, standing before a repertoire of iconic sites like Niagara Falls, prompted larger feelings of attachment amongst their audiences by invoking imagined similarities, (supposedly) universal feelings, and communally held values.  Such feelings – the awareness of shared bonds – had real resonance in nineteenth-century America which was still in the process of imagining itself as a unified entity.

My final point, however, is that newlyweds also became symbols of the dangers of sympathy and the possibilities for it to be improperly directed or uncontrolled.  Unsurprisingly, reformers and conservative commentators of all stripes disliked the promiscuous mingling of gazes and identities which sympathetic identification encouraged and worried about its projection onto material goods and things.  (Nothing confirmed their fear more than the invented traditions surrounding marriage and the way in which physical objects, like the wedding ring, came to embody emotional bonds.)

They constantly attempted to shape and re-shape honeymooning practice from the 1850s on, to make it more self-consciously private.  But in their assumption that the principle function of the tour was to promote emotional bonds, it remained, at heart, a sentimental practice, even if a more inwardly and domestically oriented one.  And the honeymoon remains today the most sentimental of all journeys.