Sarah Kemble Knight: Travelling Beatnik from the 1700’s

“The road trip” is common theme not only in film and literature, but also in the lives of many people. After graduating college, I participated in the road trip tradition. A friend of mine and I drove west from Texas to California, then up and down the west-coast, meeting new friends and reconnecting with old friends, camping, swimming, not showering sometimes for a week. Our road trip lasted between 3 and 4 months and it is an understatement to say that it changed me.

Old Road

 The Road

Many people associate the “road trip” genre with beatnik culture in the 1950’s and 60’s, due to books such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by John Wolfe–all of which which feature road-trip adventures largely based on reality, but the genre extends beyond the beatniks. Films such as Almost Famous, Easy Rider and Dumb and Dumber also feature a road-trip as their main plotline, and while not all of these films focus on an artistic or spiritual change inspired by a road trip (as was common amongst beatnik road trip stories), many of them imply at least some change in the road-tripper. A woman named Sarah Kemble Knight made a road trip strikingly similar to the beatnik road trip, except she did in 1704, almost 250 years before beatnik culture officially began.

Sarah was a teacher in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. In 1703 her husband died, and the following year she embarked on a 200 mile road trip from Boston, MA to New York City to help “a friend in the settlement of her deceased husband’s estate .” She essentially hitchhiked her way to New York, meeting up with guides, canoeing across rivers, staying with hosts she’d never met before, some pleasant, some “unmannerly,” listening to stories told by a deaf couple and writing poems about the moon—what we think of when we think about beatnik road trips, except she was primarily on horseback, and at a time when “women of the United States of America had practically no rights.”

We know about her journey because of a journal she kept while she was travelling. While this journal only briefly discusses the reason she makes this journey—to help a friend settle an estate—the events surrounding her road trip may give us a different insight. Her husband passes away in 1703, she begins this road trip in 1704, and she opens a school in 1705: this tells us that there were a lot of changes going on within these three years of her life. Even if her official reason for travelling was to help a friend with an estate, with all of the changes going on in her life, it’s possible that this road trip provided Mrs. Kemble Knight a space for reflection, growth, and possibly even healing, as it does in the beatnik road trip narrative.

While on her journey she encounters some difficulty. She is often so disgusted with the food she is offered on her journey that she goes to bed “supperless”; if you’ve ever taken a road trip you’ve probably experienced this—eating on the road can be rough sometimes. She witnesses things she doesn’t approve of, such as masters who display “too great familiarity” with their slaves, and natives who “marry many wives and at pleasure put them away,” which she notes honestly in her journal. While her naivety and racist undertones are not particularly consistent with the “beatnik” scene (Hunter S. Thompson was certainly not naïve), we must remember that this was the early 1700’s.

On my road trip I encountered a lot of people who believed in “open relationships” because they thought rules were stifling—something that I was curious about, but soon learned was too intense for me. Sometimes I met people who made me feel like I was on another planet. I imagine the confusion I felt for these people was somewhat similar to what Kemble Knight felt, as while she expresses discomfort and distaste for these practices, she also details them carefully and seems interested in them.Road trips push us out of our comfort zones, and Mrs. Kemble Knight was pushed out of hers, as these experiences demonstrate.

There are also many moments in her journal in which she seems inspired by her surroundings and experiences. She retells many of the stories she hears from other people, and writes of New York:

 “The Bricks in some of the Houses are of divers Coullers and laid in Checkers,”

…which sounds like a long lost line from the song Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds, by the Beatles.

What is perhaps the most impressive thing about this journey of hers? After only 3 months of travelling in a car, I was worn out and ready to be home. Her trip lasted 5 months, and her last journal entry indicates that by that time, she too, was ready to be home. So, we have major life changes followed by a long road trip filled with strangers, discomfort, and artistic inspiration—it may have been the 1700’s, and she may have been on horseback and in canoes, but I think Sarah Kemble Knight deserves the title of honorary beatnik.


 

Knight, Sarah Kemble, and Bruce Rogers. The Journal of Madam Knight. New York: Peter Smith, 1935. Print.

 

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