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Book Review: The America of 1750

J. S. Roucek

The America of 1750. Peter Kalm's Travels in North America, edited by Adolph B. Benson, New York, 1937, Vo1. I, pp. xviii+380, Vol. II, pp. 381-797.

Pehr Kalm, a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and a pupil of Linné, is one of the immortal names in American history. He was apparently the first efficient naturalist to conduct comprehensive and methodical studies in the colonial settlements and make his findings known in a large way. North America was tolerably well known before Kalm's time, but extensive scientific reports about it had been scarce. The official Swedish account of Kalm's American trip, En Resa till Norra Amerika, appeared in three volumes in Stockholm, 1753-1761. The manuscript of a fourth volume was finished but never published and was finally destroyed in a fire at Åbo in 1827. A few years ago, however, the diary notes for this unpublished part were discovered in the University Library at Helsinki by George Schauman and were later edited and published in their original form by Fred Elfving in 1929. This part is now offered in English for the first time. In the interim the first three parts had been republished also, in Swedish, by Elfving and Schauman, 1904-1915. The original travelogue was translated into German almost immediately; the English translation by John Reinhold Forster, which omitted the part about England, appeared in 1770-1771 at Warrington; and a second, abridged edition of this was printed in London the following year. Another edition made its appearance in 1812, but the part dealing with England, and translated by Joseph Lucas, was not published until 1892. A Dutch version based on Forster's English and the Murrays' German translation, with copper etchings, appeared in Utrecht in 1772 in two volumes. Other translations followed, as pointed out by Benson, and the work was more or less extensively reviewed or quoted in all countries that became acquainted with Kalm's Travels. Since Kalm was the first man to describe the Niagara Falls in English from first-hand information, many versions of his account were published between September 20, 1750, and 1921, when Kalm's description reappeared in C. M. Dow's Anthology and Bibliography of Niagara Falls. In addition, Kalm published in Swedish between 1749 and 1778 seventeen scientific articles in the transactions of the Swedish Academy of Sciences on topics that were either wholly or in part based on his American studies, dealing with such subjects as maple sugar, Indian corn, American ticks, grasshoppers, wild doves, spruce beer, walnut trees, and rattlesnakes.1

The present version is the first exclusively American edition of Kalm's Travels in English and the first one dealing with the part on the United States and Canada to appear in America. The part on Norway and England has been omitted however. The hitherto untranslated portion of Kalm's work has been rendered in English by Miss Edith M. L. Carlborg of the Brown University Library and Professor Benson, the present editor, The remainder, and by far the larger part, is based on Forster's translation, which has been carefully revised, however, and compared with the Swedish original, since Forster and his precocious son (who did most of the work) used the German version. But it must be noted that `except for desirable or necessary changes in diction and vocabulary no attempt has been made to alter seriously the translator's style or language where his facts and renderings are correct and intelligible. In fact, the editor feels that a preservation of the eighteenth century idiom, flavor, quaintness and general mode of expression may, in this case, be an added attraction. But an effort has been made to remove glaring instances of obsolete words and to simplify and smoothen highly involved, awkward and ponderous sentences. Most of the parts left out by Forster have been reintroduced, to make the translation as complete as possible, the spelling of some words has been modernized, and the emasculated parts restored.

Nobody but a real scholar can appreciate the amount of work which must have gone into the translating and editing of this volume. Professor Benson's introduction is itself of quite outstanding merit and American (as well as Swedish) scholarship must be heavily indebted to him for his remarkable contribution. Many people have never heard of Kalm; and yet he has much more illuminating material to offer about America's early history than is generally supposed. In this respect the work constitutes an indispensable document for anyone who wishes to understand the colonial period of American history and the role played by Swedes in the making of America.

[1] A Bibliography of Peter Kalm's Writings on America, Vo1. II, pp. 770-776, is the best of its kind known to the reviewer.

Published in Social Science, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 1947, p. 15-18.

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