4 Genres of Exploration Narrative

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca was published in 1542, making it a relatively early entry in the  genre of the exploration narrative.  It is, as our editors tell us, “unique as the tale of the first Europeans and the first African to confront and survive the peopled wilderness of what is present-day America.”  Florida had already been “discovered” about a decade before Cabeza de Vaca arrived there.  But it remains stunning to think that this is happening nearly a century before pilgrims settled Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth Rock in 1620.  The Narrative, then, offers the earliest and most detailed account of early explorers in present-day America.

What forms did these documents usually take?  That is, what can we say about the genre of exploration narratives?  Critics usually think of such works in relation to four general categories each with distinct, if overlapping, rhetorical purposes:

  • First, you have the Promotional Narrative.  These are the most positive, almost mythic in their portrayal of an Edenic New World.  Here, one drops a seed and the soil transforms it into bounteous harvest; the locals are pre-lapsarian in their natural kindness and goodness and generosity.  Such accounts, of course, have reasons for being so defiantly rosy: their goal is to spur on further colonization and exploration.
  • Next, you have the Apologia or Defense: These arrive in light of failed or difficult expeditions and are often written by the person in charge.  Something blocks the purely promotional: shipwreck, lack of supplies, or lack of leadership, hostility on the ground, mutiny in the ranks.
  • Then, you have the Descriptive mode: such accounts often involve lengthy catalogs of goods and detailed descriptions of geography—all stated as comprehensively and in as much detail as possible so as to aid later exploitation of said resources. Interestingly, the items described are most often cast in terms the Europeans can understand by drawing connections between what is known and what is unknown.
  • Finally, you have the more dramatic form of tragedy.  We might view this as an extreme version of the apology that doesn’t necessarily work to justify failure, but to detail it in extreme, often placing blame for failure on other leaders and taking on the role of a martyr. These are most often composed by someone who is not the leader of the expedition but who is motivated to portray that leader in a certain tragic light as either a tragic hero or failure with the ultimate goal of making the author look better.


We must remember that Cabeza de Vaca did not consciously enter these generic choices as one might consciously, say, compose a sonnet sequence.  These generic categories are more retrospective and overlapping. Aspects of two or more of these genres will likely be present in a single text.  But they remain useful generic distinctions.

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