Sampling the writings of travelers who refused to be tourists
The Norton Book of Travel, edited by Paul Fussell. New York: W.W. Norton. 832 pp. $19.95. Like the death of the novel, the end of genuine travel and travel writing has been forecast for decades. E.M. Forster saw the end coming in 1920; Evelyn Waugh in the '30s and again in the '60s; and Paul Fussell wrote in 1980, ``I am assuming that travel is now impossible and that tourism is all we have left.''
The word ``travel'' has a certain dignity. ``Tourist'' is decidedly pejorative. For Waugh, the tourist is he who ``debauches the great monuments of antiquity,'' who is ``a comic figure, always inapt in his comments, incongruous in his appearance....'' But Waugh, with the humor of one who traveled ``when the going was good,'' could add that, of course, ``We are travellers and cosmopolitans; the tourist is the other fellow.''
Today, with not only tourism, but also terrorism, industrialism, and a slew of other isms abroad, the going is not so good, and few would argue with Fussell's conclusion that ``real'' travel's heyday has come to a close.
What was real travel and how has travel writing evolved today? The first question, Fussell answers beautifully through his anthology's selections and the narrative he provides. The second question he answers only partway - as if he'd run out of steam or lacked the heart to talk at length about an era that could actually produce a book subtitled, ``Around the World in a Bad Mood.''
The genre did not spring to life full-grown. The ancient world had explorers and tourists but not true travelers. Linking the three groups, Fussell suggests, is the impulse to learn by traveling. But their motives and methods differ. Ancient explorers traveled in search of unknown territory, ancient tourists in search of manmade wonders, but for both the journey was an outward adventure, and their accounts were records of externals.
Even in the early 18th century, ``travel'' writing had an outward focus. Indeed, Fussell suggests the trend was accentuated by the acceptance of John Locke's theory that ``knowledge comes entirely through the external senses, and from the mind's later contemplation of materials laid up in the memory as a result of sense experience.'' From this argument came the idea that observation is in itself educational and also the idea that you could ``exhaust'' an environment - observe it all - which made travel imperative. Hence, the educational Grand Tour for the era's upper classes, and their closely observed accounts of their journeys.
Fussell's selections from these earlier periods demonstrate his point. Whatever the pleasures in reading the works of Herodotus or Marco Polo - and there are many - we miss their personal response to what they are seeing.
It is only in the later 18th century, as the concept of ``personality'' develops, that travel writing becomes not simply an account of places, but also a record of response - an interior journey - and emerges as a literary genre.
In the writing from travel's heyday, we find writers using the techniques of fiction - dialogue, imagery, the creation of suspense - to render ``the autobiographical narrative at the heart of a travel book.'' Fussell's selections from this era seem chosen for variety as well as quality and include Waugh, Twain, Stevenson, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Byron (but surprisingly few women for a field in which women have written so much). He also includes a few selections from not-strictly-travel works, such as Whitman's ``Song of the Open Road'' and Swift's ``Gulliver's Travels'' (the ``send up'' of the pack-of-lies travel book), which bear an interesting relationship to travel writing.
Lurking in the shadows throughout the book is tourism, preparing to trivialize travel. The increasing convenience of railroads and ships that helped real travelers get about helped tourism as well. In 1841, Thomas Cook arranged his first group tour, and by 1864, he was ``doing the Continent, strenuously.'' Tourism flourished, no matter that critics like Kingsley Martin might call it ``a disease of the mind, [whose] germ is the idea that one may learn that which is valuable, or in any way acquire virtue, by the process of being shown things.''
In an effort to define tourism - and differentiate it from travel - Fussell devotes a chapter to ``touristic tendencies,'' which includes writers whose work has either described tourism or exemplified it. Unfortunately, the chapter misses its mark - too many of the selections (especially Hemingway's) seem ill-chosen. But what the section might have achieved is shown by some excerpts by Jan Morris. The inclusion of Morris, who is often called our best contemporary travel writer, may strike some people as sacrilege. But as the excerpts show, while Morris can be a traveler, she can often have the ``cheery'' superficiality of a tourist, and Fussell makes a point: Nowadays, we often fail to distinguish between the two modes.
As a conceptual and literary history of travel through its heyday, ``The Norton Book of Travel'' is superb, but as it reaches the present day, it falters. Focusing on a trend that he calls ``post-touristic,'' Fussell observes that much of today's travel writing is characterized by ``annoyance, boredom, disillusion, even anger.''
And as his selections from Naipaul, Theroux, and Claude Levi-Strauss show, a negative trend exists.
Yet, he doesn't do the era justice. More important, his own short response to the post-touristic vision does not treat in any depth the underlying forces of this vision or the complex moral issues that engage contemporary travel writers - as for example the relationship of the Western traveler to the third world. Instead, his response is merely dismissing - indeed his response seems characterized by ``annoyance, boredom, disillusion, even anger.''
It may be that many of today's best travel writers are finding, with Levi-Strauss, that ``Journeys, those magic caskets of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished.'' But one can hardly fault their honest response to an honest inquiry as being too negative. If they were cheerful, they might simply be tourists. Their journeys and their books suggest that if its heyday has passed, the travel genre survives as a way to learn about and come to terms with the world.
Gail Pool reviews travel literature for the Monitor.