Travel Writing

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.


I think the list of travel books sound absolutely delicious! I can’t wait to start a new reading journey after the examinations! I think I’ll like to have more adventures and write a book one day. But I am worried that being that way will make me gradually indulgent. Oh yes, I have a strong dislike for Henry James and I will be skipping that. Paul Theroux is average, but oh the female writers! I think the females make such strong, independent travel writers, but the problem is that they think too much on their journeys and reflect too much into themselves and the history. The men are a bit more gutsy and have beautiful quiet moments and their adventures of a reflective kind.

Oh and I never knew Evelyn Waugh had travel writing! This, I have to try. Graham Greene is likely to be dark and pondering, but he is a granite boy sort of fellow.

Please tell me, my secret literature lovers (like Irving), that you will be following through on this list with me, as I explore the cities!

Which travel writers do you recommend, and which particular texts?


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