The nature of travel, often prolonged and unpredictable, is perhaps at odds with the concision of the essay form. Traveling lends itself to fragmentary modes—letters, notebooks, journals—which somehow swell to fill long books. Observations on manners, morals, and monuments; autobiographical and anecdotal digressions; the flow of narrative incident, reminiscence, and analysis—all seem to require leisurely and expansive treatment.
None of the earliest travel writers appears to have written in a form that could safely be called an essay. Herodotus produced a History of the Persian Wars, and Pausanius wrote a guidebook for second-century Roman travelers in Greece. The Venetian Marco Polo recounted his travels to China, and the medieval Berber, Ibn Battuta, told of visiting most of the known world. Explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries, including Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and Sir Walter Ralegh kept journals and wrote letters describing the marvels they encountered. But none of them, it seems, wrote travel essays.
Montaigne’s famous essay, “Des cannibales” (1580; “Of Cannibals”), does not narrate his own travels, but reflects on the customs of different cultures, and the relative nature of barbarism: “each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice.” (Montaigne also kept a Journal de Voyage en Italie which was not published until 1774.) Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Travel” (1625) advises young men what to see, and recommends keeping a diary. In 1763 Richard Hurd published “On the Uses of Foreign Travel,” a dialogue
concerning the value of travel.
In the 18th century nearly every major writer tried his hand at writing a travel book— Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, Johnson, Boswell, Goethe—but well-known travel essays are in short supply. In 1792 William Gilpin published his Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape. One might argue that the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, written in Turkey from 1716 to 1718, should count as travel essays. Wife of the British ambassador to Turkey, Lady Mary sent home hundreds of polished and witty letters, each a mini-essay about some aspect of Turkish life. Her trenchant observations on the contrasting merits of Turkish and British society place her among the most celebrated travel writers.
The great essayist William Hazlitt wrote “On Going a Journey” (1822), which extols the pleasures of traveling alone: “the soul of a journey is liberty.” In 1826 he published a series of essays, Notes of a journey Through France and Italy; though he calls travel a splendid dream, he concludes that “our affections must settle at home.”
The Victorians’ appetite for travel books has probably never been equaled, but they tended to devour multi-volume tomes rather than succinct essays. Richard Burton alone produced 43 volumes of travel, and none of the era’s classics—Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Alexander Kinglake’s Eōthen, or, Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East (1844), Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888), and Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897)—is short. If the definition of the essay can be stretched once again to include letters, Isabella Bird’s bestknown work, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879), recounts in a series of lively vignettes her adventures in the American West.
Leslie Stephen’s delightful mountaineering essays in The Playground of Europe (1871) were originally written for the Alpine Journal. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Essays of Travel were collected in 1905, yet he is better known for his charming account of Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Rudyard Kipling wrote Letters ofTravel (1892–1913) (1920), a series of newspaper articles describing his visits to North America, Japan, and Egypt; later he published Brazilian Sketches (1927) and Souvenirs of France (1933).
Although the most popular 19th-century American travel writer, Mark Twain, wrote mainly long, humorous travel books—Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880)—other American authors produced admirable travel essays. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited England twice, in 1833 and 1847, and later published English Traits (1856) on topics such as manners, character, the aristocracy, and universities. For most travelers, personal experience forms the basis of their narratives, but Emerson preferred analysis to autobiography. His essays are prone to sweeping generalizations: “the one thing the English value is pluck.”
Unlike Emerson, who claimed to travel unwillingly, Henry James was an inveterate and passionate traveler. He published several volumes of travel essays: Transatlantic Sketches (1875), Portraits of Places (1883), and A Little Tour in France (1884, revised 1900); some travel essays reappeared in English Hours (1905) and Italian Hours (1909).
James was familiar with Europe from childhood, and fascinated by the contrast between the Old World and the New. Like many of his novels, his travel sketches take Europe as both location and theme. He brought a wide culture to his travels, yet his purpose was not to instruct: “I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer.” Instead he offered reminiscences and impressions, discriminating observations and sophisticated judgments, all in an urbane, cosmopolitan style.
D.H.Lawrence wrote a series of essays about his long stay in Italy, published in 1916 as Twilight in Italy. A restless traveler in search of a home, Lawrence lived in over a dozen countries and produced several more travel books, including Sea and Sardinia (1921), Mornings in Mexico (1927), and Etruscan Places (1932). Other important figures in 20th-century English travel are Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Peter Fleming,
Robert Byron, Freya Stark, Eric Newby, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy, Jonathan Raban, and Bruce Chatwin. The best-known contemporary English travel essayist is Jan Morris, author of numerous collections including Places (1972), Travels (1976), Journeys (1984), and Among the Cities (1985).
Shiva Naipaul’s Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth: Stories and Pieces (1984) contains a number of his travel essays about England, India, Africa, and the Caribbean.
V.S.Naipaul’s travel writing includes an essay on the Ivory Coast, “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro,” originally published in the New Yorker and reprinted in Finding the Center (1984).
In the United States, postwar travel essays are varied. James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (1953) recounts his experience as the first black man to appear in a Swiss village. The New Yorker frequently publishes travel essays: those by Berton Roueché were collected under the title Sea to Shining Sea: People, Travely Places (1985), while a selection of Calvin Trillin’s humorous essays came out in 1989 as Travels with Alice.
Paul Theroux has made the persona of the grouchy rail traveler instantly recognizable;
The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) was the first of many satiric travel books, and Theroux’s travel essays appear in a wide variety of publications. Tim Cahill writes irreverent adventure travel articles for Outside and other magazines; two collections of his essays are Jaguars Ripped My Flesh: Adventure Is a Risky Business (1987) and A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg (1989).
Although the self-contained formal essay may not be best adapted to encompass the sprawling variety and multitudinousness of travel, the genre continues to flourish, often disguised as letters, sketches, impressions, portraits, or dispatches. Currently, travel essays of one sort or another appear in a wide range of newspapers and magazines; occasional issues of Granta are devoted to travel writing by contemporary authors.
A Book of Travellers’ Tales, edited by Eric Newby, London: Collins, 1985; New York: Viking, 1986
Ladies on the Loose: Wotnen Travellers of the 18th and 19th Centuries, edited by Leo Hamalian, New York: Dodd Mead, 1981
The Norton Book of Travel, edited by Paul Fussell, New York: Norton, 1987
The Spirit of Place: An Anthology of Travel Writings, edited by Michael Venter, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1992
A Taste for Travel: An Anthology, edited by John Julius Norwich, London: Macmillan, 1985; New York: Knopf, 1987
Travel Literature Through the Ages: An Anthology, edited by Percy G.Adams, New York: Garland, 1988
Adams, Percy G., Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983
Batten, Charles L., Jr., Pleasurable Instruction: Form and Convention in Eighteenthcentury
Travel Literature, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978
Brown, Sharon Rogers, American Travel Narratives as a Literary Genre from 1542 to 1832: The Art of a Perpetual Journey, Lampeter, Dyfed, and Lewiston, New York: Mellen Press, 1993
Caesar, Terry, Forgiving the Boundaries: Home as Abroad in American Travel Writing, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995
Campbell, Mary B., The Witness and the Other World: Exotic European Travel Writing 400–1600, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988
Cocker, Mark, Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century, London: Secker and Warburg, and New York: Pantheon, 1992,
Curley, Thomas M., Samuel Johnson and the Age of Travel, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976
Foster, Shirley, Across New Worlds: Nineteenth-century Women Travellers and Their Writings, New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990
Frawley, Maria H., A Wider Range: Travel Writing by Women in Victorian England, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994
Fussell, Paul, Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980
Kowalewski, Michael, editor, Tetnperamental Journeys: Essays on the Modern Literature of Travel, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
Lawrence, Karen R., Penelope Voyages: Women and Travel in the British Literary Tradition, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1994
Middleton, Dorothy, Victorian Lady Travelers, New York: Dutton, and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965
Munter, Robert, and Clyde L.Grose, Englishmen Abroad: Being an Account of Their Travels in the Seventeenth Century, Lampeter, Dyfed and Lewiston, New York: Mellen Press, 1986
Porter, Dennis, Haunted Journeys: Desire and Transgression in European Travel Writing, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991
Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992
Russell, Mary, The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt: Women Travellers and Their World, London: Collins, 1988
Stowe, William W., Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth– Century American Culture, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994
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