Gross Archive

Travel Writing - The Common Thread

Travel books are extremely diverse. Some are barely identifiable as travel writing. Gerald Durrell is thought of as an eccentric naturalist but in fact his books are engaging books on travel with a special focus on animal life. The kinds of travel literature, or indeed travel writers, can be broadly categorized. Top of the list are travel writers who are travelers by occupation and writers by profession. Three such writers are Paul Theroux, William Least Heat-Moon and Bill Bryson. It is probably no surprise that writers in this sub-genre are often short-tempered about travel and indeed the act of travel writing. More writers in this category are Jan Morris and Eric Newby. Once again there is a cross-over, because Morris is known as an historian and Newby as a novelist. It seems as soon as you write anything other than travelogues you have lost your purity!

Then there are travel works that are more along the lines of essays, such as V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization, in which a journey becomes the peg on which to hang reflections and considerable philosophizing about nations, people, politics and culture. Another such work is Rebecca West’s work on Yugoslavia entitled Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. We have already dealt with the naturalist-as-traveler in Gerald Durrell. There are many more such examples. What of Sally Carrighar, Ivan T. Sanderson who also write to support their scientific ambitions. Arguably this sub-genre started when Charles Darwin undertook the voyage on HMS Beagle and returned to write his famous account of the journey, which encompassed science, natural history and travel.

Finally there is what I call travel writers who reversed into the genre. Here authors who have established their names in other genres travel and try their hand at travel writing. More famous authors than you would think have tried this. Examples include Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, the essayist Hillaire Belloc, the novelists Lawrence Durrell, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, John Steinbeck and Evelyn Waugh.

Some critics and analysts say that fictional travelogues (accounts of journeys that are imaginary and often to imaginary destinations) make up a large proportion of travel literature. I would say that is a long shot. They argue that no one really knows where the travel accounts of Marco Polo and John Mandeville stopped being fact and became fiction. Well, that doesn’t make any fictional journey travel writing, in my book. More acceptable are instances where fictional works are based on factual journeys – such as Joseph Conrad’s Heat of Darkness and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. It must be said that it takes consummate skill to incorporate an account of a real journey into a fictional story. Conrad managed this superbly.

Finally there are the entirely imaginary journeys that form part of the literary heritage but which in my view cannot be construed as travel literature of any kind. Homer’s Odyssey, Danté’s Divine Comedy, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide…. The list goes on and on…..One common thread does run through all of travel literature, though. It is the traveler’s – and the reader’s – boundless fascination with what lies over the next horizon, just out of sight and ready to be discovered.

Leave a comment...