norton book of travel writingOur book today is a modern-day classic from 1987, The Norton Book of Travel Writing, edited for the ages by the great Paul Fussell and featuring a stellar roster of the greatest travel-writers of all time (with one incredibly glaring exception: there is no Mary Kingsley here). We have Freya Stark, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Jan Morris, John Crowe Ransom, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Bowles, and even Fussell’s rival editor of a classic travel-writing anthology (in this case 1985’s A Book of Travellers’ Tales) Eric Newby, and we also have Fussell himself, writing with his usual psychological insight about the underlying illicit pleasures of travel:

Homesickness is one of the traveler’s ailments, and so is loneliness. Fear – of strangers, of being embarrassed, of threats to personal safety – is the traveler’s usual, if often unadmitted, companion. The sensitive traveler will also feel a degree of guilt at his alienation from ordinary people, at the unearned good fortune that has given him freedom while others labor at their unexciting daily obligations. If a little shame doesn’t mingle with the traveler’s pleasure, there is probably going to be insufficient ironic resonance in his perceptions.

And while Fussell’s psychological insights always say more about him than they tend to say about observable reality (The Great War and Modern Memory ought to be subtitled “My Dad Often Ignored Me”), in this case he’s on to something: that “unearned good fortune” really should inform even the humblest of travel adventures, that reflexive remembrance that the kid behind the counter at the sunglasses hut isn’t on vacation – he’s working, and even in paradise, he’s looking forward to the end of his shift.

If there’s one weakness in Fussell’s anthology, it’s that he tends to gravitate toward travel writers who are every bit the inveterate bookworm that he himself is, writers who are far, far more concerned with after-the-fact polish carefully applied in book-lined studies than they are with immediacy (hence, perhaps, the absence of Mary Kingsley). One of worst offenders in this regard is surely Ralph Waldo Emerson, as Fussell himself obliquely observes: “As a traveler and a travel writer he is unique, an itinerant ethical philosopher prone to effuse constant metaphors, interested in places largely as providing insights into people, customs, usages, identities. A sophisticated wonder is his customary tone …”

The resultant passages in Emerson smell more than a little of the lamp:

Every Englishman is an embryonic chancellor. His instinct is to search for a precedent. The favourite phrase of their law is, “a custom whereof the memory of man runneth not back to the contrary.” The barons say, “Nolumus mutari [We will not change];” and the cockneys stifle the curiosity of the foreigner on the reason of any practice, with “Lord, sir, it was always so!” They hate innovation. Bacon told them, Time was the right reformer; Chatham, that “confidence was a plant of slow growth;” Canning, to “advance with the times;” and Wellington, that “habit was ten times nature.” All their statesmen learn the resistibility of the tides of custom, and have invented many fine phrases to cover this slowness of perception, the prehensility of tail.

At the opposite end of that spectrum would be an impressionistic writer like D. H. Lawrence, whose 1921 mini-classic Sea and Sardinia is as passionate, vivid, and repetitive as a dream:

Cold, fresh wind, a black-blue, translucent, rolling sea on which the wake rose in snapping foam, and Sicily was on the left: Monte Pellegrino, a huge, inordinate mass of pinkish rock, hardly crisped with the faintest vegetation, looming up to heaven from the sea. Strangely large in mass and bulk Monte Pellegrino looks and bare, like a Sahara in heaven: and old-looking. These coasts of Sicily are very imposing, terrific, fortifying the interior. And again one gets the feeling that age has worn them bare; as if old, old civilizations had worn away and exhausted the soil, leaving a terrifying blankness of rock, as at Syracuse in plateau, and here in great mass.

Some of these two dozen writers are hyper-observant but not very ruminative; others are filled with impressions and memories even by the sight of a single tidal pool (or half-naked market boy). The one thing they all have in common is that when they got that “unearned good fortune” they seized it, prolonged it, and most of all wrote about it. I harp on all my traveling friends now (and especially the ones who are already earning their money with their pens) to take notes on those infrequent trips – write them down, write them up, sell them. Even in a world where no point is more than 30 hours’ travel away from any other point, there’s a bottomless market for travellers’ tales.

Instead of harping, I should send those traveling friends copies of this great anthology, as a subtle hint …



No Comments Yet

You can be the first to comment!

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue