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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.
overwhelming human urge to traveland the letters, novels and narratives
that, over the centuries, have detailed the results of that urgewas
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 toand
more tolerant thanthe 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 Dignechosen, 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 Americawhat people wanted to hear."
Although the nostalgia evoked by Pyles
columns "is inevitably slightly unreal, slightly overdone, slightly
arcane," Harrington said, "at its heart and core its 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 Pyles perspective
is the view from Humbert Humberts automobile in Vladimir Nabokovs
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 beenin 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 summers
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 allowscreatesan environment for this type of crime,
from Nabokovs 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 historythat
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 Canalor "from Faulkner to Garcia Marquez,"
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 controla 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
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 Therouxs 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 departments writing program and organizer of the
conference. When Therouxs book, published in 1975, became a best-seller,
publishers "rediscovered that travel writing sells," said Espey,
while Fussells 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
Fussells 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 Fussells prose, noting that it had "crossover
appeal" to a broad, non-academic audienceunlike some other
critical writing, which "sometimes doesnt 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 Abroadin which Fussell had to retrieve his wallet and
passport from a Turkish toiletEspey proposed that the award be dubbed
the "Order of the Golden Arm."
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Gazette Last modified 10/26/99