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Postcards from the Ends of the World

They went in pursuit of fortune, enlightenment and aristocratic diversion. Some sought freedom from restrictions of gender, race or law; others, a chance to conquer and shape unfamiliar worlds.
Illustration by Anthony Russo   
The overwhelming human urge to travel—and the letters, novels and narratives that, over the centuries, have detailed the results of that urge—was explored during a four-day scholarly exchange at Penn back in June. Sponsored by the Penn Writing Program and the English department, the program was titled "Writing the Journey: A Conference on American, British and Anglophone Travel Writers and Writing."
   
Dr. Nira Gupta-Casele, assistant professor of English at Kean University, used the writings of two 18th-century Englishwomen during trips to the Indian subcontinent to show how the feminine genre of the "letter home" played a role in "paving the discursive ground for imperialism."
   
Writing on the question of "whether black people by nature are inferior in understanding to white," Mrs. N. Kindersley, wife of a British colonial officer, said, "Who can judge of it here where the nature of the government checks the growth of every virtue? Where property is not secure, what incitement is there to industry? Where knowledge is of no use, who will resign his indolence [for intellectual] attainment? In such a government can we wonder that the general characteristic of the inhabitants should be stupidity and low cunning?" Not surprisingly, Kindersley went on to contend that the British were far superior to—and more tolerant than—the Muslim rulers.
   
In contrast, French-born travel writer and orientalist Alexandra David-Neel immersed herself in the language and culture of the Himalayas during an amiable separation from her husband, Philip, spanning two world wars.
   
So faithful was she in her almost daily correspondence to him that she would stretch her ink in the Himalayan snow, noted Margaret McColley, a graduate student in French language and literature at the University of Virginia. Those letters were posthumously published in her Journal de Voyage.
   
David-Neel often uses the English word home in her letters; for her, however, it is not a spot on the map but a spiritual place "carried inside." Upon her final return to France in 1946, David-Neel retired to a simple house in Digne—chosen, appropriately, for its view of the surrounding Alps and a terrace that allowed her to sleep under the stars.
   
Home for future war correspondent Ernie Pyle was, for a time, any place the American roads would take him. From 1935 to 1942, he roved around the country with his wife, churning out dispatches that left newspaper readers and chambers of commerce clamoring for more.
   
His popular columns combined adventure with "the rediscovery of the essential America during a time of great stress," observed Dr. Charles Harrington, associate professor of English at Indiana University-South Bend. "Although the Great Depression was always a strong unspoken subtext, Pyle concentrated on colorful characters and what was right with America—what people wanted to hear."
   
Although the nostalgia evoked by Pyle’s columns "is inevitably slightly unreal, slightly overdone, slightly arcane," Harrington said, "at its heart and core it’s also a true and real testament to the yearnings of people caught in times they barely understand and besieged by an unattractive reality." Readers thirsted for his reassurances that "the country is still sound, and people are still good."
   
In stark contrast to Pyle’s perspective is the view from Humbert Humbert’s automobile in Vladimir Nabokov’s most literary of road novels, Lolita. Nostalgia is turned on its head as this dangerously cosmopolitan traveler crosses the country with Dolores Haze, his pubescent charge whose mother has conveniently been struck by a car. They wind through an America that has been—in the words of John Schwetman, a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California-Irvine—"flattened, two-dimensionalized and stuck up on a neon sign." To elude capture for kidnapping a minor, he takes her on an improvised tour of 48 states, through countless caverns, kitsch-filled gift shops and lookalike battle sites.
   
Humbert later mocks his naive urge to stay at the intriguingly named Enchanted Hunters motel at the beginning of his road trip with Lolita: "For all along our route countless motor courts proclaimed their vacancy in neon lights, ready to accommodate salesman, escaped convicts, impotents, family groups, as well as the most corrupt and vigorous couples. Ah, gentle drivers gliding through summer’s black nights, what frolics, what twists of lust, you might see from your impeccable highways if Kumfy Kabins were suddenly drained of their pigments and became as transparent as boxes of glass!"
   
"What really sucks the American landscape dry and allows—creates—an environment for this type of crime, from Nabokov’s point of view, is repetition, seriality," Schwetman said. "One Enchanted Hunters inn would be probably interesting in itself, but 20 of them lined up along the same stretch of highway, with their own kind of flattened versions of American nature and history—that trivializes it."
   
One could also argue that such repetition cheapens modern-day travel writing. "Trade publishers want writers to write exactly the same book over and over again so they can publish it badly and blame the author," lamented Jonathan Maslow in his talk "Adventurer for Hire: Travel Writing, Money and the Art of Interesting Poverty." The author decried the need to "pre-sell" the travel book, using the history of one of his own books, The Torrid Zone: Seven Stories from the Gulf Coast, as an example. It began in 1987, when a publisher agreed to pay a $40,000 advance ($20,000 up front) for his proposal to write a travel book about the Gulf Coast, journeying from Florida to Mexico to the Panama Canal—or "from Faulkner to Garcia Marquez," Maslow said.
   
As he wrote, however, the book metamorphosed into a collection of short stories told by Gulf Coast residents and a travel novel of the Caribbean Rim. After he delivered these two pieces as a book, the deal was dropped, Maslow recalled, adding, "I let the muse take control—a fatal error." The short stories were eventually brought out by another publisher for a much smaller sum.
   
Maslow, who described himself as an "addicted traveler" and his profession as one that "ranks with fireman and cowboy," also made it clear that it is not the path to economic security. Starting out back in the 1970s, he said, he made about $2,000 a year from writing; "20 years and three wives" later, the author of several well-received travel books is making $16,000 a year working for a small newspaper in New Jersey and "eating a lot of road-kill venison."
   
This is an "increasingly difficult time" for travel writing, Maslow said. The "armchair travelers" who once read books about out-of-the-way places now visit them on package tours with "bug spray included" or watch the numerous travel programs on television. This trend is allied with an overall "diminishing interest in foreign places and different ways" and an American attitude that "since we have all the money, we have all the answers." Together, they have left a "landscape without readers" and led to the "economic and literary marginalization of the travel writer," he claimed. Nevertheless, concluded Maslow, "I regret none of it."
   
Maslow delivered his talk at a dinner where the guest of honor was Dr. Paul Fussell, the Donald T. Regan Professor Emeritus of English and author of Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. That book, along with Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, helped spark the current wave of interest in travel writing, according to Dr. David Espey, director of the English department’s writing program and organizer of the conference. When Theroux’s book, published in 1975, became a best-seller, publishers "rediscovered that travel writing sells," said Espey, while Fussell’s book made travel writing "respectable and compelling" as a subject of criticism. Abroad also posed a number of provocative theses that continue to frame the critical debate, Espey noted, including Fussell’s contention that organized "tourism" has supplanted true "travel," which inspired a spate of "Fussell as travel killer" leads in travel articles. Espey also praised the quality and accessibility of Fussell’s prose, noting that it had "crossover appeal" to a broad, non-academic audience—unlike some other critical writing, which "sometimes doesn’t cross the hall in the English department."
   
Eventually, concluded Espey, the travel conference could lead to the formation of a professional association, which might give an annual award for travel writing. Citing his favorite anecdote from Abroad—in which Fussell had to retrieve his wallet and passport from a Turkish toilet—Espey proposed that the award be dubbed the "Order of the Golden Arm."

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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10/26/99