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Bruce Kuklick

Go East, Young Man

Trekking to the Holy Land.

A full-blooded Protestant Christianity dominated educated life in nineteenth-century America. For the professional classes the Holy Land was an important reality, and American missionary activity in the Near East, and in Palestine in particular, was intense. By the 1820s hardy American Protestants had begun to uplift the Arab world, and by the second half of the nineteenth century, genteel but serious tourists from the United States were trekking to Palestine. After the Civil War, the college-trained middle class and some less well educated but sincere believers desired to appropriate the ancient East at a time when robust Protestant belief was under assault.

Academics have taken up this episode in American cultural life with more or less imaginative skill, and works that have studied the issue include David Finnie, Pioneers East (1967); Lester I. Vogel, To See A Promised Land (1993); Moshe Davis, America and the Holy Land (1995); and John Davis, The Landscape of Belief (1996). Scholars have chronicled the travels of the tourists but additionally striven to understand how they imposed their own sense of social verities on the nineteenth-century Near East. Western tourism has recently come under (usually hostile) scrutiny, and some authors have used contemporary theories to investigate the cultural imperialism at work in the experience of Palestine.

Hilton Obenzinger develops some of these themes in this latest contribution to the literature. For him American tourism was in part a sort of re-creation of what the travelers took to be the original Protestant expedition to the New World. The Puritans in America had thought of themselves as latter-day Israelites on a journey into the wilderness that would eventually see the construction of a new promised land. In the nineteenth century, those who made the pilgrimage to Palestine, in what Obenzinger refers to as a "doubling," were reclaiming, re-appropriating the ancient salvific experience of the Israelites; they were corroborating ...

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